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The Road Less Stimulated

By Clifford F. Lynch

DC Velocity, April, 2009

I have always been careful to avoid taking political positions in this column and have tried to curb whatever cynicism I may have felt about the actions of political parties or individuals (with the possible exception of the secretary of transportation, whom I consider to be fair game). But in today’s economic and political climate, that’s becoming increasingly difficult. A case in point is the now infamous "stimulus package" offered up by the current administration.

In a radio address shortly after his election, President Barack Obama called rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure a top priority. In this address, he announced his intention to "create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure" since Dwight Eisenhower authorized $25 billion ($188 billion in 2007 dollars) for the construction of the Interstate Highway System.

As the legislation has evolved, however, only about $63 billion has been allocated to transportation infrastructure, with less than half of that designated for roads and bridges. The funding comes with the stipulation that the projects must be "shovel ready" in order to create jobs as quickly as possible and provide maximum stimulative effect on the economy.

While I am all in favor of creating jobs and stimulating the economy in any way we can, I am concerned by the evident lack of a strategic vision – something I have mentioned in previous columns. Once again, we will be plunging ahead with thousands of individual projects for which there is no comprehensive master plan. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has estimated that the 50 states have 5, 148 projects representing $64 billion that can be ready to go within 180 days. Certainly, this could generate employment, but one can only imagine what some of these projects might be. "Ready to go" does not necessarily mean a project is a wise investment – or one that has significant value beyond possibly creating short-term employment.

As for those jobs, President Obama’s plan conjures up memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA generated almost 8,000,000 jobs. There is probably not a county in the United States that does not have a bridge, road, or park built by the WPA.

According to the Encyclopedia of American History, during its eight-year life, the WPA built 651,087 miles of highways and roads, as well as 124,031 bridges. This was in addition to thousands of schools and parks. The major criticism was that there were too many people working on too many projects that weren’t always needed or wanted. Granted, the construction projects provided temporary jobs, but many of the finished products provided little, if any, ongoing employment.

The current undertaking will probably have similar results. One example is a "hot" stimulus project in my city. City leaders are salivating over the possibility of receiving $27 million to build a Mississippi River boat dock and gathering place. Attractive? Probably, but not likely to provide long-term employment for many. And certainly not a major contribution to transportation infrastructure.

Finally, where is the rest of the $800 billion stimulus spending going? So far, we have accounted for only $30 billion, or 3.8 percent, of the total. Another $30+ billion has been designated for rail, air, and water development, but that still leaves us more than $700 billion short. As for the remainder, all I can say is, here we go again. The final version of the stimulus bill allocates funds to upgrade the Farm Service Agency’s computer system, inspect canals in urban areas, reduce tribal alcohol and substance abuse, and renovate the headquarters of the Public Health Service.

Does the economy need a big boost? No question about it. Let’s hope this works. But let’s not pretend this is a meaningful investment in infrastructure.

 

 

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