Why Stimulus Money Should Go to Cities, Not States

I spoke earlier today to David Burwell, founder of the Surface Transportation Policy Project and a strategic consultant with the Transportation for America campaign, about how the stimulus package is shaping up for transportation projects, why it might go wrong, and what can be done to set it on the right track.

"He’s putting his reputation and his brand in the hands of a bunch of state DOTs who don’t care very much about the Obama brand."

The main risk, he said, is that stimulus spending might get funneled entirely to the states, which have billions in highway expansion projects in the pipeline (for a taste, check out Friends of the Earth’s Road to Nowhere campaign).
The congressional leadership has not signaled that it will set aside — or "sub-allocate" — funds specifically for cities and metropolitan planning organizations. Neither has Obama’s transportation transition team, which met last month with T4A leaders and other environmental advocates.

Here’s what Burwell had to say, in a nutshell, about the stimulus package. Stay tuned for more from the interview.

The transportation team realizes that the infrastructure piece is a problem
and wants to address it, but they see it as a long-term issue, not a
short-term one. The problem is, you can’t spend this amount of money
without affecting the re-authorization.

The transportation stimulus could be a bunch of bridges to nowhere. Obama’s environmental team is looking not at the
transportation infrastructure piece, they’re looking at all the rest of
it. They’re saying, "Well, it’s green. This really is a green stimulus
package." And they’re probably right, but the transportation piece is
not green, it’s gray-to-black.

This is HR 1. This is going to be the first bill Obama signs — high visibility — and if it has a bunch of roads to nowhere and bridges to nowhere, those things are actually going to be under construction within two years when the midterm elections are coming up. This is a threat to the Obama brand — the idea that this is a new administration, we’re going to do things differently, we’re going in a new direction, we’re done with the old way of doing business. Yet he’s pouring all this money into the old way of doing business in transportation.

They don’t understand the fact that they can’t just say, "We want green infrastructure," and get green infrastructure. There’s a provision of Title 23 of the United States Code, which governs highway spending, that says no matter what the feds say, the states have a sovereign right to pick their own projects. That’s section 145. It says, regardless of what the feds say, "the authorization for appropriation of Federal funds… shall in no way infringe on the sovereign rights of States to determine which projects shall be federally financed." So he doesn’t control the selection process once that money hits the state books. The feds have very little ability to influence it. He’s putting his reputation and his brand in the hands of a bunch of state DOTs who don’t care very much about the Obama brand. That’s a big threat.

The best defense on how these moneys are going to be spent is to sub-allocate it, because it’s the cities that build the bike paths, it’s the cities that build the transit systems, it’s the cities that run the bus lines, it’s the cities that run the rail stations. If you want this money spent on new green infrastructure, get it to the cities. It’s the states that run the highway system. If you give all the money to the states, you know exactly what they’re going to spend the money on. I’d rather have Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg decide how to spend this money than the division administrator of the state DOT.

  • Circumventing the states to give funds directly to the cities is a non-starter. Trying to rewrite the process that has been built up over decades is too much for a new President to bite off in his first piece of major legislation. Trying to impose some set of vague criteria that fits the goals of a narrow band of activists is going to fail when this stuff starts working through the Congress.

    But instead of just posting a response blasting me for my poor sense of realpolitik, I suggest ped and bike activists promote their priorities by contacting their Congressperson and urge the stimulus package encourage green ideals. A brief polite phone call could make all the difference. And I think would be more effective than lobbhying Metro or local cities on the issue.

    You can find out who your Representative is via using this page on the House website: https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

    By the way, isn’t STPP basically moribund? Certainly not the force it was during the Ditmar years. Transportation for America looks to be a cobbled together attempt to have something in place with reauthorization impending, but it so far is unimpressive.

  • cph

    I’m not 100% convinced the cities would be any wiser, anyway. Has anyone seen the “Main Street Economic Recovery” (a.k.a. Mayors Wishlist)

    http://www.usmayors.org/mainstreeteconomicrecovery/documents/mser-report-200812.pdf

    Seems to be a lot of froo-froo-frippery in there. Nice, but at this time, we probably need to buckle down and concentrate on road/bridge repair, transit systems that will get people to work, etc.

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