How to Build a Better Infrastructure Plan

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Economists and lawmakers are batting around increasingly large figures for the Obama admin’s upcoming stimulus package — 300 billion dollars, 500 billion, a trillion? Whatever the final sum, a big cut will get plowed into transpo projects. The question is whether all that money will perpetuate an outdated system or lead toward a future where cars and gas aren’t seen as basic necessities for most Americans.

This piece from William Gale and Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution maps out some smart principles for the people who’ll be making those decisions. Stop spreading transpo funds around the country "like peanut butter," they tell the feds, and target places with the biggest concentrations of people…

Lost in a morass of pork and politics, federal infrastructure policy
today is an unaccountable free-for-all. Though there is little economic
justification for making broad improvements in all places, that is
exactly how the American transportation structure operates. The 6,373
earmarked projects in the latest federal transportation authorization
illustrate the problem. It’s not just the distaste for earmarks but the
politically driven scattershot approach. The result is that only half
of the projects go to places that matter most to the American economy
and would benefit most from the investments: the 100 largest
metropolitan areas, where 75 percent of GDP is produced.

Katz, you may recall, is one of the leading candidates to head up the new Office of Urban Policy in the Obama White House. So hopefully we’ll get to see whether this idea can survive the Senate, where Alaska wields the same number of votes as New York. 

In terms of modal preference, Katz and Gale make no pronouncements, but the goals they describe don’t seem all that compatible with 18-lane elevated highways:

The focus
should be on investing in infrastructure that supports the
competitiveness and environmental sustainability of the nation instead
of funding individual states or spending on singular needs.

To
score this, the nation needs a strong, deliberate and strategic federal
government to do what is necessary to keep America competitive. What
would that mean?

It means setting strict criteria for the
billions of infrastructure dollars that are spent as part of the
stimulus. Such criteria should include a real assessment of economic
benefits and costs that consider environmental, energy, and social
impacts. We should only invest those dollars where the nation has
assurances of high returns.

It means holding the grantees — the
states and metropolitan planning organizations — accountable through
ongoing audits to ensure public dollars are being spent as efficiently
and effectively as possible. The direct loss of future federal funds
should be a genuine consequence for failing to meet basic
accountability standards.

It means making focused, targeted
investments in those gateways and corridors that are the critical nodes
of international trade and inter-metropolitan commerce, rather than
spreading infrastructure funding around the country like peanut butter.
An independent national infrastructure bank should be established to
define and finance those projects of substantial regional and national
significance now and in the future.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • City planning one oh one oh where are you?

    Based on his goal, of providing greater moneys to cities where there are more people, it would seem that his goal of a stronger federal government just adds an extra layer of government morass. Cities with larger populations give more in taxes, so why not let local control increase so that each locality can put their own money into transportation instead of sending it to Washington and back.

  • Biggie S

    Obama please, please give us transportation change we can believe in. This infrastructure money will be flushed down the sprawl hole unless you crack heads in congress. Federal transportation spending is a dysfunctional disaster that won’t be fixed by little increments and pilot projects.

  • As someone from what we liek to describe as a “micropolitan” area, this post raised all kinds of red flags.
    Smaller towns have the potential to make great gains in becoming less car dependent, but our transit funding is so unreliable, that our transit operators are just trying to make due instead of looking to grow, even with ridership having increased over 50% in the last few years here.
    It does make sense to distribute funds based on population, but it also makes sense to incentivize smart land use, so if an area is doing good planning, they get rewarded. Also, smaller towns have a tougher time doing planning, because there is less expertise and economy of scale. Assistance with those things would help get smaller towns and more rural areas on a better trajectory.

  • Joanne

    This issue of rural versus urban is the wrong one to emphasize. The issue should be providing transit alternatives to all areas. I live part time in both an urban and rural setting and take transit in both. I also work for a mid-size city that operates a successful bus transit system. It is a constant struggle to find funding and (maybe more importantly) gain credibility within the city in which we operate. If it is hard to prioritize transit, pedestrians and bicycles in a place like NYC, imagine how hard it is in a place without the robust transit network, with relatively ample road capacity, and without a widespread culture of transit use as part of its definition.

    I completely agree with what Chris Rall said in his post. I also believe if the Feds cut smaller cities and rural places out of the funding loop, small town transit systems will whither and die (city and state budgets are shrinking FAST). Our ridership for October 2008 hit an all time high and is up 10% over Oct. 2007, and yet we may have to cut our relatively modest levels of service due to decreasing grant revenues.

    We are working as hard as we can, but Federal cuts on top of amazing State cuts (and the City doesn’t fund us at all any more), would be truly disheartening.

  • You might also be interested in the infrastructure report my peers at Campaign for America’s Future recently released: “The Investment Deficit in America.” It talks at length about what transportation infrastructure projects are needed, what the costs are and how we can finance it in a responsible way.

    http://www.ourfuture.org/report/investment-deficit

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