Friday, January 16, 2009

Stimulating us backwards in time

It's hard to know if the House Dems are spiking their beverages with illicit drugs or really do believe that the 1950s were the golden days of America, but their stimulus package suggests that are delusional or delusionally nostalgic: highway, highway, highways.

It's if they believe that global warming is off the front pages so may not exist any more.

It's if they believe that oil prices are low right now, so the supply must be unending.

There is $30 billion for highway construction in the bill and $10 billion for transit. Here is what some other folks around the country are saying:

The Transport Politic:

We’re not particularly impressed; compared to $30 billion for highway construction, there is $10 billion for non-automobile uses here, and only $1 billion of that will go to New Start projects, $2 billion to modernization, and $1 billion to intercity rail. $6 billion will go to new or renovated equipment such as buses.

Why is this plan insufficient? For one, as the bill points out, there is a $50 billion backlog of repairs needed to be made to public transport, but only $2 billion is allocated for such investments. As we wrote early in the history of this blog, the number one need for transit in the United States is modernization of existing transit systems. New York’s Subway and Chicago’s L, among many others, desperately need to be rebuilt. This bill does not do much to help along that process.

Second, the bill does virtually nil for intercity rail, providing only $1.1 billion for Amtrak and state-based rail provision. The bill notes that the Northeast Corridor alone needs $10 billion in upgrades. How will this funding solve that problem, or tackle those of other corridors around the country? Where’s the money for high-speed rail operations?

Third, there’s only $1 billion set aside here for New Start grants. The fact of the matter is that the Second Avenue Subway’s First Phase alone will cost more than $4 billion. This money will do little to improve funding for transit agencies that are excited to get new rail and bus lines under construction.

And then there’s the $30 billion set aside for highways. Is this going to go towards more unnecessary roads? Did the dramatic reduction in traffic over the past eight months impress anyone in Congress? Or will this money go solely to needed repairs? This question has yet to be answered.

That said, there are possibilities for transit in other sections of the plan. $25 billion of the money to be redistributed to states for budget relief will go to paying for “essential services.” There doesn’t seem to be a reason that states couldn’t use that money for transit operations, which are facing record deficits around the country and which will not be able to take advantage of the $6 billion in buses this bill offers if they can’t hire drivers!

$31 billion is set aside to modernize public infrastructure with the goal of energy savings; there’s no reason that station and track improvements couldn’t fit in with this section of the bill.

But overall, the bill lacks any overriding ambition, and seems to be willing to provide only the modicum of funding with little attention to greater goals or even current needs. This is an early draft of legislation that still has a long way to go, so it may be too early to be making assumptions. But while this economic stimulus bill could be the foundation for a radical change in the way transportation is funded in the United States, what we’re getting here is nothing of the sort.

Greater Greater Washington:

House Democrats have released a draft of the federal stimulus package. Among the $275 billion in spending is $30 billion for highways and $10 billion for transit. That's still way too much highway money, but at least it's a big small step up from the existing status quo which gave only 3% of federal money 20% of federal transportation money to transit.

Most of the highway money will go to new sprawl-inducing lane miles. "In 2006, the Department of Transportation estimated $8.5 billion was needed to maintain current systems and $61.4 billion was needed to improve highways and bridges." And the plan's authors don't appear to have heard of induced demand, writing, "These projects create jobs in the short term while saving commuters time and money in the long term." Actually, since the 1950s we've learned that many highway project don't actually save time or money in the long term.


Design New Haven:

Unfortunately, according to the draft plan, the vast majority of the $40 billion in transportation funds would most likely go towards expanding superhighways in places like the deserts of Utah, not investing in the types of 21st-century infrastructure that can get the residents of the nation's major metropolitan areas to work efficiently, safely and without owning a car -- even though over 40% of New Haven residents commute by means other than private automobile. Despite all the evidence that transit-oriented development creates jobs by dramatically saving large numbers of people time and commuting expenses, the stimulus bill seems more like it is shaping up to be a recipe for oil company profits than for smarter growth in metropolitan areas like New Haven.

Bottom line is that it appears that Congress believes that highways should be expanded even as bridges across the country continue to catastrophically fail and crumble; even as families, children and senior citizens literally find it impossible to walk more than a couple of blocks in their own neighborhoods due to the lack of proper pedestrian facilities; and even as many major cities less than 30 miles apart - like Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven - continue to have absolutely no viable mass transportation connections.

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