Not so stimulating

So much for President-elect Barack Obama’s promise to give our national infrastructure a 21st-century overhaul. His $1 trillion stimulus plan is more likely to result in a binge of warmed-over 20th-century highway-building boondoggles.

That’s the worry for Erin Steva, with the California Public Interest Research Group. Her group just released a study that they say shows Obama’s $1 trillion stimulus plan will likely “undermine efforts to repair and modernize our deteriorating infrastructure and reduce U.S. dependence on oil.”

That’s because most of the would-be recipients of that money, the 50 states including California, plan on spending most of the money they get building new highway capacity.

Back in early December, Obama asked the states for a list of “shovel ready” projects that would bolster transportation infrastructure and put people to work. California’s wish list to Obama was loaded with 61 percent road spending. And California is one of the more forward-thinking states. Florida would spend 98.9 percent of its funds on roads, almost all of it for new construction.

California wants to spend a whopping 31 percent of its road money on new highway projects, like the expansion of Highway 50 in Sacramento County. Only 37 percent of that list is for public transit—though that’s really the system that needs to be built up the most, and the system that will be the foundation of our future economic growth. That’s about the same percentage as Tennessee and considerably less than the 43 and 47 percent that Wisconsin and Massachusetts, respectively, want to spend on transit. In fact, nationwide, states would only spend about 16 percent of their infrastructure money on transit. “That fact that there’s record ridership, even with gas prices going down, indicates that there’s a greater need for funding mass transit,” said Steva.

She’s not kidding. Sacramento Regional Transit has had great ridership numbers over the last year, and is in the middle of an important long-range master-plan process that could—if some money materializes down the road—result in fundamental overhaul of our public-transportation system. But in the immediate future, RT is going to be decimated by the state budget.

Instead of the business-as-usual approach of giving the lion’s share of infrastructure money to roads, CalPIRG proposes future funding be split 50-50 between roads and transit. And the group argues that road money should go first to repair and maintenance of existing infrastructure; new road projects would be last on the on list.

So that’s half the money for the keeping up the old outmoded way of doing things, and half for the future? It doesn’t sound that radical, does it? And yet.

Here’s the bonus, at least according to Steva and other green stimulus advocates: Public-transportation projects create 20 percent more jobs than road-building projects. Just fixing existing roads and bridges creates 9 percent more jobs than new road capacity.

Time will tell. But does anybody really think an Obama administration—including his nominee for transportation secretary, Illinois Republican Rep. Ray LaHood—will demand more innovative and more forward-looking projects from the states? LaHood’s been called “Caterpillar’s bag man,” by some environmentalists. He has a lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters of just 27 percent, but a 66 percent approval record from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Sure, the guy broke party ranks to vote to expand Amtrak funding, but also thinks we ought to drill for oil offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As a sign of things to come, Bites finds it less than stimulating.