Saturday, March 28, 2009

“Shovel-Ready” is Not “Shovel-Right”

Part and parcel, and some would say “central to” the president’s economic stimulus plan is the funding of “shovel ready” public works projects. Projects involving the rebuilding of our country’s crumbling infrastructure. Projects that bring jobs to people and bacon to the breakfast table.

But now, we are starting to see how and where the federal stimulus funds are being spent. We are starting to see public works projects being queued for commencement. And in seeing these projects unfold one after the other, one has to ask “is shovel-ready, shovel-right?”

In part, one must ask this question because of near term vs. long term goals of the Obama Administration. In the near term, we need to repair or replace the things that have served us in the past. No one needs to be reminded of the lives and property lost when the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota failed and took rush hour commuters to their deaths a year and a half ago. That bridge became a poster child for the aging of America’s infrastructure even though it was later revealed that the failure ultimately stemmed from an undetected design flaw in the bridge.

But in the long term, we need to address energy and environmental issues that have only now begun to plague our society. Our infrastructure has been built without taking into account the energy that will be consumed as those projects start serving society. Without taking into account whether that project will increase or decrease greenhouse gas output. President Obama said it best earlier during his town hall meeting in Florida:

“‘The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over,’ he said, urging officials to employ ‘innovative thinking’ when deciding how to spend their transportation money”

This is the vision as expounded by White House spokesman Nick Shapiro in speaking to the New York Times:

“A White House spokesman, Nick Shapiro, said that the stimulus bill would promote ‘long-term sustainable development’ by spending billions of dollars on renewable energy, mass transit, rail service and urban development, and he added that the choice of most transportation projects was left to states.”

And therein lies the rub. While there is nothing wrong with the vision, a view from the White House “bubble” (as our president calls it), there is something wrong with letting the states decide which project will benefit from this federal stimulus.

State have shovel-ready projects. Projects that have been formulated, plans that have surveys and schedules. Plans for projects that are ready to go, but just don’t have any funds to launch them.

The trouble is, the states have plans that are all ready to go, but these plans are from a vision that looks backward to a time when energy was something you just bought, and greenhouse gases were things that made your tomatoes grow.

Projects that are ready to go are yesterday’s projects, for yesterday’s needs.

Witness the plans to use these stimulus funds in New Hampshire where they will widen I-93, a corridor that delivers New Hampshire residents to Boston, where they work.

Witness the plans to use these stimulus funds in North Carolina to extend I-295 to Fayetteville, a move to benefit its big cash cow, Fort Bragg, but will be built at the expense of projects in already established cities.

Or far more closer to home, witness what Texas Department of Transportation wants to do with $181 million of the funds sent to them from the stimulus plan: extend an established roadway, The Grand Parkway, through an undeveloped area west of Houston, and build it as a toll road (that’s right, tax dollars to build a toll road) so that developers can build on land even further away from the Houston metropolitan area.

A plan that would warm the hearts of the Saud family.

The point is, “shovel-ready” is not “shovel-right.” The long-term vision is correct, but the reality is that shovel-ready projects are projects developed in the past. Projects envisioned by the myopic.

And for those who are ready to consider what kinds of infrastructure transportation projects in and around cities fit the bill here, I have just two words:

Light rail.

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