It’s important to recall that infrastructure spending in the stimulus package is limited—and appropriately so—by the quantity of genuinely useful projects that it’s possible to move forward with. You don’t want to build misguided projects, or just promise things that can’t actually be delivered. Dave Alpert notes that the volume of transportation funding appears to fall short of some categories of identified backlogs. But even here there’s a need to exercise caution. Many items of backlog lists would, in fact, need to go through years worth of environmental review and so forth before you could actually build them. And the incentive structure that exists when compiling these lists militates in the direction of governors and others overestimated the volume of projects in need of funding.
This argument falls flat when you compare the $2.1 billion in the draft bill for the stimulus package and the amount of money in projects already approved for new starts by the FTA. Just last week, U-Link got final approval from the FTA for $813 million, and there are another $14 billion in approved projects that the FTA is on the hook for funding. These projects already passed the FTA’s approval process, so they are certainly “genuinely useful” by the FTA’s existing definitions.
You might say, well if they are already getting money, then what’s the point in awarding it in the stimulus? Currently the FTA gives the money in installments, and awarded about $1.14 billion last year in capital project funds. While it’s true that not all of them will have their start dates or finish dates moved forward by getting the FTA grants upfront but many of these projects could be started in the next two years, and the point of the stimulus is to get people back to work right in the next two yearsby giving this FTA money up front. I know San Francisco’s Central Subway is waiting for money to begin, and if Sound Transit got that $813 million tomorrow rather than in installments over the next eight years, it could start and finish University Link more quickly. I can’t guarantee it, but I bet one of the reasons Rapid Ride doesn’t open until 2010 or 2011 is that King County doesn’t have the money to start construction right now. So the “there’s not enough good projects read right now” argument has no truth to it.
The second argument Mr Yglesias makes is that you can’t expect the stimulus program to change the way we make transportation investments overnight:
Last but by no means least, it’s important not to let stimulus-mania crowd out all other considerations. It was true that America’s infrastructure policy needed a serious overhaul before this economic crisis hit. And it will continue to be true that the way infrastructure spending works in the United States is screwed up and in need of reform. Barack Obama had proposals for addressing these issues before the interest in a stimulus bill came around. As it happens, I think he had some pretty good ideas. And ultimately this is where the real action is going to be—not in terms of what is and isn’t in the stimulus package, but what kinds of enduring reforms does his administration bring about. For example, the stimulus proposal currently offers $30 billion for roads and $10 billion for rail and transit. That’s not the ratio of my dreams, but it’s a much better ratio than is reflected in current spending priorities.
…In the short-run—i.e., in the stimulus time frame—there’s only so much change of priorities that it’s feasible to do. But in the longer run, priorities can be shifted much more dramatically. This is a very big deal and in some ways where the real action will be in terms of whether or not we see a national shift in priorities.
There are a lot of problems with the FTA, and the ratio is sort of a smaller one. I understand the FTA isn’t going to go from an 4:1 highway:transit ratio – which is what we have now - to something like a 1:1 or a 1:5 ratio, really, ever. Partly this is because roads projects cost so much more, and partly this is because much of where our nation’s population doesn’t live in the sort of places where transit is useful or cost effective. The ratio isn’t as important as the absolute number. If the feds would go from spending $1.14 billion a year on capital projects to even $3 billion, I’d be happy with 4:1, and ecstatic with 3:1. FTA also needs to simplify it’s review process, but that’s a topic for a different post.
Fine, fine, we can’t get more money for transportation transit construction out of a stimulus package than $2.1 billion, whatever. But do we really think that the president that puts $275~$300 billion in tax cuts for his stimulus program to be or appear bipartisan and puts someone with no obvious transportation interest and a dodgy record into the head FTA position, again, to be or seem bipartisan is going to fight to change the way the feds do transportation investments? I don’t think so, not unless he can do it in a bipartisan way. Only time will tell, and I would love to be wrong, but I get the feeling that Mr Obama doesn’t see transportation – transit or highways – as a priority.
Well, I’m still optimistic at Barack Obama on many other issues, and beyond excited that Bush’s last day is tomorrow. Anyone doing anything fun for the inauguration tomorrow?