Stimulus Package To First Pay for Routine Repairs
Sunday, December 14, 2008; Page A01
President-elect Barack Obama calls it "the largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg compares it to the New Deal -- when workers built hundreds of bridges, dams and parkways -- while saying it could help close the gap with China, where he recently traveled on a Shanghai train at 267 mph.
Most of the infrastructure spending being proposed for the massive stimulus package that Obama and congressional Democrats are readying, however, is not exactly the stuff of history, but destined for routine projects that have been on the to-do lists of state highway departments for years. Oklahoma wants to repave stretches of Interstates 35 and 40 and build "cable barriers" to keep wayward cars from crossing medians. New Jersey wants to repaint 88 bridges and restore Route 35 from Toms River to Mantoloking. Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to widen 1.5 miles of Scottsdale Road.
On the campaign trail, Obama said he would "rebuild America" with an "infrastructure bank" run by a new board that would award $60 billion over a decade to projects such as high-speed rail to take the country in a more energy-efficient direction. But the crumbling economy, while giving impetus to big spending plans, has also put a new emphasis on projects that can be started immediately -- "use it or lose it," Obama said last week -- and created a clear tension between the need to create jobs fast and the desire for a lasting legacy.
"It doesn't have the power to stir men's souls," said David Goldberg of Smart Growth America. "Repair and maintenance are good. We need to make sure we're building bridges that stand, not bridges to nowhere. But to gild the lily . . . where we're resurfacing pieces of road that aren't that critical, just to be able to say we spent the money, is not what we're after."
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is proud that his city was able to quickly rebuild the Interstate 35 bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007 while making sure to include capacity for a future transit line on it. But he worries that many of the road and bridge upgrades around the country will not be done in a similarly farsighted way, given the time pressures.
"The quickest things we can do may not be the ones that have the most significant long-term impact on the green economy," he said. "Unless we push a transit investment, this will end up being a stimulus package that rebalances our transportation strategy toward roads and away from [what] we need to get off our addiction to oil."
Mayors say there would be a better chance for a long-term impact if the money were focused on metropolitan areas where investments could make the most difference in reducing congestion and lessening dependence on cars. They doubt that will happen if infrastructure funding goes directly to state capitals.
In Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels said that the list of projects submitted by Washington state included only one in Seattle, for a ferry dock, while the city has ambitious hopes for removing a hulking highway ramp in a revitalized neighborhood and accelerating a light-rail expansion.
"Metro areas really are the engines of the economy, and to the extent that this can go directly to the metro areas rather than a cumbersome state process, it will have more effect," Nickels said. "States can do a nice job in rural counties, but in metro areas it's not always a good relationship or very nimble."
As it stands, Congress, wanting to keep things simple, plans to disburse the money under existing formulas -- funding for roads and bridges will go to state governments, while money for public transit will go to the local agencies that receive transit funding.
State officials are playing down concerns about their proposed projects' value. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine said repairing a swath of roads and bridges is ambitious in its own right. "We could spend money on further provision of rail to Port Elizabeth and Port Newark, but if the highways weren't paved, we actually wouldn't have the ability to have the trains get to the spot to take the goods to the local distribution outlet," he said. "Those deferred maintenance investments are fundamental to maintaining a capital infrastructure."
Oklahoma transportation director Gary Ridley justifies his state's wish list in similar terms. Its highway pavements "are probably 40 years old, and some of them have been replaced, but a lot of them haven't," he said. "It's not like we're grabbing these out of the air."