Stimulus to Nowhere?
Can we avoid the upcoming Economic Recovery Program from being a Stimulus to Nowhere?
When President-Elect Barack Obama announced he was planning the largest new investment in national infrastructure since “the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” he probably didn’t mean that the U.S. should literally start building highways as if it’s the 1950s all over again.
But that’s the message too many governors and state DOT secretaries seem to have heard. Ever since the President-Elect’s team put out the call for “ready to go” infrastructure projects, they have been busy dusting off familiar plans for wider highways and larger roads. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials has joined them, touting 5000 shovel-ready projects, most designed to put more cars on highways, boosting our carbon emissions and increasing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Since transportation accounts for one-third of our carbon emissions and an even larger share of gasoline use, funding these projects would represent a big step backwards from the clean-energy future President-Elect Obama promises. While recognizing the need for projects that are ready to employ masses of workers, the President-Elect and the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees who will help him write the stimulus bill must insist on more strategic investments. The good projects are out there but will only be found by weeding through the lists forwarded by the states and by broadening the search to include projects from big- and small-city mayors.
In case anyone is paying attention, it was just six months ago that skyrocketing gasoline prices were exposing basic flaws in the prevailing transportation and development models that leave more and more Americans with no choice but to use cars to get everywhere. Given the auto-dependent infrastructure America is building for them, and the spread-out communities that result, too many families have no choice but to take food off their tables or clothes off their backs in order to put gas in their tanks.
President Obama understands this problem. His campaign policy paper stated rather eloquently that the amount of fuel we use is “directly related to our land-use decisions and development patterns, much of which have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline.” He called for moving beyond “our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers” and instead making it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access transportation alternatives."
Unfortunately, with few exceptions, state transportation bureaucracies are cueing up projects from the same old concrete-lovers cookbook. After previously shelving plans to widen Interstate 66, Route 7 and other northern Virginia highways for lack of funds, Governor Tim Kaine’s administration announced last week that the stimulus may give them a new lease on life, the Post reported. Traffic conditions may warrant rare expansions, but the governor should work a lot harder to forward projects that perform for pedestrians and transit-riders as well as drivers.
New Jersey wants stimulus funds to expand the New Jersey turnpike, even though the Tri-State Transportation Campaign points out that state’s own data show traffic volumes on the highway creeping downward since 2004. Then there’s the widening of Interstate 94 from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line, one of the projects Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin has recommended to the President Elect. Though it will achieve only minimal reductions in drive times, it is projected to add more than 200,000 automobile miles per day. Say hello to 130,000 pounds in new daily carbon emissions (assuming the average miles-per-gallon of cars on the road climbs to 30). It’s the kind of project Exxon might dream up to get cars back on the road after seven unprecedented months of declining driving.
As he prepares to act with “deliberate haste,” Obama is receiving good advice to steer stimulus dollars towards efficient public transportation systems, something Americans will thank him for the next time gasoline prices spike. To his credit, Doyle has forwarded plans for extending Amtrak, adding commuter-rail service, and renewing bus fleets.
But Obama need not swear off pavement altogether. There are plenty of stimulus-ready projects that involve investing in avenues, boulevards and other streets that serve not just as traffic conduits but also as the setting for jobs, shopping and living. They are projects like the rebuilding of East Boulevard in Charlotte, a former traffic-choked strip that now distributes traffic more effectively and has become a thriving retail destination catering to both drivers and pedestrians. A promising-but-not-perfect list created by the U.S. Conference of Mayors includes a ready-to-go proposal to convert 1.8 miles of elevated Route 29 in Trenton, NJ into a boulevard complemented by an improved street grid, putting 28 acres back on the tax rolls. This list -- and its 314 projects targeting pedestrians, 274 involving streetscapes, and 794 improving trails or rail service – is a good place to look (carefully) for projects to fund.
The best investments will help make neighborhoods more walkable and valuable, more like the hearts of Alexandria, VA or Evanston, IL and similar urban centers across the country where the Center for Neighborhood Technologies and the Brookings Institution report residents drive less than half the national average and generate less than half as much in driving-related carbon emissions as well.
In today’s world, infrastructure projects that aspire simply to attract and move more vehicles are strategic dead-ends. President-Elect Obama and members of Congress can instead choose investments that get people where they need to be while creating livable places, supporting valuable economic activity and reducing our oil dependency and global warming emissions. Let’s invest in infrastructure that helps American perform better economically and environmentally, not a stimulus to nowhere.
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