No More Roads to Nowhere

It currently appears likely that the “stimulus” package to be passed as soon as congress reconvenes will dump tens or hundreds of billions of dollars into the budgets of the state transportation departments, because they’re the ones with “shovels in the ground” ready projects capable of mindlessly absorbing that much cash.  The problem is, those projects are all about cars, and the feds have virtually no oversight of where the money goes once it’s in the state DoT coffers.  This is a recipe for waste, not forward looking investment.  It is the worst of spending, for spending’s sake – which is what the “stimulus” is all about, let’s be clear – but if we’re going to spend for the sake of spending, why oh why can’t we also do it in a thoughtful way?  Because when there’s a crisis, it’s the ideas that are laying around, most accessible, that get implemented.  The plans that are on the books, ready to go.  The wishlists of those in power.

If those aren’t your plans, then you better come up with an alternative before you need it, and you better keep that alternative up to date, and ready to go at a moment’s notice, when the disaster strikes, and suddenly, all anyone wants is for the government to do something, never mind what.  Unfortunately, that’s a lot of work, and it’s work that isn’t well funded, while the status quo gets a semi-continuous stream of development money to figure out what to do next.  Tough.  Luckily there are plenty of organizations with alternative transportation infrastructure plans.  I think what keeps them from being ready to go by next June is the lack of pre-existing political buy-in.  I don’t know how to fix that.

Instead of gushing cash at the DoTs, the money should be competitively allocated to metropolitan transportation agencies, and should stop predisposing us toward automotive transportation.  If the car wants to compete on an even playing field, I’m actually fine with that – but historically, it hasn’t.  The RAND Corporation put out a 638 page report entitled Moving Los Angeles in October, which has a huge range of specific suggestions for cost-effectively improving Southern California’s transportation network.  The Brookings Institute put out a study this summer on the same topic, for the nation as a whole, and specifically focused on the importance of giving local governments the power to plan and prioritize.  Economically, the world is a collection of city states (80% of the world’s GDP is generated in cities, and they are, perhaps not coincidentally, responsible for 80% of humanity’s CO2 emissions), and in some contexts where we have been failed by the nation states, we are starting to move that direction politically.

So please join The Friends of the Earth and Transportation For America in telling your elected representatives (federal and state) to give this money to the cities, not the states, and not to blindly prioritize immediate spending over thoughtful investment.  Not all infrastructure has positive value.  Building another generation’s worth of freeways and unlivable cities may well cost us more in the long run than instantaneous stimulation saves us near term.

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