December 24, 2008

In Spending We Trust

Obama seems to underestimate local government's ability to be clever in finding ways to spend money with strings attached. The incoming administration's promise of "shovel-ready" investments is bad news for America: it means that hundreds of billions of dollars of transportation investments are about to be wasted on a patchwork of short-term repair and repaving projects.

Money For Roads

News flash: there is nothing controversial or politically difficult about repaving a broken road. Funding for such projects will take care of itself over the years, and road repair projects do not need a big pile of special cash.

On the other hand, weaning ourselves from our addiction to automobiles and imported oil is extremely politically difficult, and it is an effort that is worthy of a big pile of cash. The half-billion-dollar stimulus being planned by Obama is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to aim high and break this addiction by investing in non-car transportation.

Everybody Understands the Problem

Here in Boston, a lack of political will by generations of transportation planners means that our local commuter rail system is an embarrasment.

Pulled by the latest diesel locomotives, our trains are even slower than the steam-powered trains that transported suburbanites 100 years ago. Why? Because they travel the same zig-zag tracks that were originally laid, and there has been no political will to do the difficult things (knocking down houses) required to straighten out the tracks.

Non-car infrastructure around the country suffers from the same lack of political will: we are all consumed by maintaining and extending Eisenhower's 1956 interstate highway system, and it is hard to talk about doing anything better.

But the entire interstate highway system cost $425 billion (adjusted for today's dollars) to build. If we plan to spend $500 billion, certainly we have a chance to build something better.

In Spending We Trust

Obama should tie the bulk of transportation investments to "use it or lose it rules" allowing the money to be spent only on non-car infrastructure improvements. The money would give local governments a reason to have the politically difficult discussions about how to actually, finally, free ourselves from our addiction to the automobile.

Before the money is offered, local administrators of course will whine that they have no way to figure out how to spend the money quickly if such strings are attached.

But do not underestimate local ability to confront a difficult political problem if the discussion is tied to billions of dollars of free federal money.

They will find a way.

Posted by David at December 24, 2008 07:23 PM
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