Would Obama's Infrastructure-Stimulus Proposal Spend Money in the Right Places?

Los Angeles Public Works Department repairs a sidewalk on Aug. 12. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Over the last few years America has learned the hard way—from the New Orleans levees breaking to the Minneapolis bridge collapsing—that its infrastructure is in disrepair. This is especially true in the urban core, which has been overlooked in favor of building new highways, sewers, and power lines out to the exurban fringe. Since the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, the federal government has pursued infrastructure expansion over maintenance.

But today's experts on environmental and metropolitan policy have a different view: that as a matter of safety and efficiency, "fix it first" should be the guiding principle of infrastructure investment. There is also a growing consensus across the ideological spectrum that favoring new highway construction distorts the housing market, destroys the environment, and ultimately fails to eliminate traffic.

Rather than developing more land, using more raw materials, and requiring more driving, say transportation activists and experts, the government should refocus its infrastructure investment toward mass transit and reinvestment in the urban core. The Obama administration, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, and House transportation-committee chair Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) have all committed to this same vision.

So does President Obama's proposal from earlier this week to spend $50 billion on infrastructure as a form of job-creating economic stimulus fulfill his pledge to improve transportation policy? It appears likely to, but we won't know for sure until the rubber meets the road.

The Transportation for America coalition of business, environmental, and smart-growth organizations cheered Obama's announcement. "This should not be seen as a mere short-term stimulus," it said in a press release. "This kind of aggressive, multi-year construction and rehabilitation effort is fundamental to the long-term health of our economy."

What are the details that so please the group? First, Obama wants to refurbish 4,000 miles of rail. That's a lot, although it's a lot less than the 150,000 miles of roads he wants to fix as well. You might expect smart-growth advocates and environmentalists to be disappointed in such an imbalance, but they are mostly taking a pragmatic stance.

"I also [in addition to rail] support the expenditure on repair and rehabilitation of roads and bridges, on the merits as well as politically," Jim McElfish, director of the Sustainable Use of Land Program at the Environmental Law Institute, tells NEWSWEEK in an e-mail. "One of the big problems for the country has been the deterioration of existing roads and bridges, even as substantial funding has previously gone to construction of new roads ... Politically, of course, road and bridge repair funds can benefit many states and areas where passenger rail will not reach—and of course the construction and engineering lobbies, which like highway funding, are just as happy with repair and rehab as with new construction ... Any rehab/repair scheme will necessarily benefit older cities, even if it also benefits other areas."

But transportation experts such as Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) hasten to note that $50 billion is nowhere near enough to address America's underfunded infrastructure. The Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill is several years overdue, and until that is passed the needed paradigm shift in America's transportation policy cannot happen. Some of the reforms, such as creating an "infrastructure bank" to free transportation-infrastructure spending from its current dependence on gasoline-tax revenues, are contained in Obama's current proposal. "It's pretty clear that the $50 billion is intended as a one-time jump-start, to be followed by a longer-term vision for an infrastructure bank," notes McElfish. But whether that will be enacted by a Congress that may be dominated by spending-averse Republicans in the next year is unclear.

Indeed, even while Obama's proposal is criticized by Nadler and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman for being too small, Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress may be unwilling to pass it. Vulnerable Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) came out against the plan on Wednesday, and top Democrats in the House have said they may not have the votes to pass it.

But if it is enacted, where the money gets spent will be crucial to the question of how much it helps the economy and the environment. "There was no discussion whatsoever about what kind of roads get addressed with the latest proposal," says Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution. "That would be, I suspect, entirely up to the states that would be receiving the money. There should probably be some federal guidance about focusing the funds to repair and rehabilitate existing roadway infrastructure, since we know the rehabilitation needs are so great."

Puentes's suggestion is a good one, but it looks as if transportation wonks will be lucky if their problem is whether infrastructure money is being spent in the best places, instead of whether it is being spent at all.