Congress Sending Wrong Signals to State DOTs in Stimulus Draft

Gary Toth is director of Project for Public Spaces’ transportation program and an influential voice for transportation as a tool for making communities more livable.
In this piece he tells us how state DOTs are taking cues from
Washington as the stimulus bill takes shape. It’s going to be more of
the same unless Congress starts sending different signals —
immediately. The names of DOTs have been altered (State DOT A, State
DOT B) to protect the identity of sources. Check out PPS’s social network site for more from Gary.

Painting_Bike_Lanes.jpgTime is running out to tell DOTs that bicycle and pedestrian projects should be a priority.

I
spent last week working with 30 engineers and planners at State DOT A
while teaching a transportation and land use course. In a phrase, the
politicians are driving them nuts over the stimulus. Yesterday, I met
with a planner from an MPO who said that she was ready to put a bullet
in her head as a result of the disruption that the stimulus has created
in her job.

This is consistent with what I find when I talk to people at
State DOT B. Congress’s dangling of billions in front of the
politicians has created a feeding frenzy, with the people at the top
desperately trying to prove that they can spend every penny, and
imposing on staff to create list after list without ever knowing what
the rules of the game are. All sense of standards and reason is out the
window.

People are already investing resources in hurriedly putting together projects
that they think the bill will call for. If Congress wants to steer them
to, say, bike/ped or maintenance, legislators have to get the word out
now. Alternately, they have to be more pragmatic about this and
recognize that they may have to give the DOTs 90 days to gear up to
what Congress wants them to spend the money on, then 180 days to spend
the money. Otherwise, the DOTs will have no choice but to pick
business-as-usual projects, because that is all they have in the pipeline.

Word
around DOT B is that, due to the same financial issues driving DC to
desperately figure out how to prop up jobs, DOT B is now developing the
framework to lay off 85 maintenance workers amongst a few hundred
potential job cuts. Even before cuts were being considered, staff at
DOT B did not believe that they had enough resources to get the
stimulus out. DOT A has similar doubts. But their leaders will never
say die, never admit to Congress that they need more time out of fear
that the money will go to another state which is not quite as honest
about its capabilities.

Furthermore, in both states staff
believe that the only way to get anything out within the stimulus
bill’s tight time frame is to offer up jobs that were already "ready to
go," plus attempt to accelerate projects that were 80 to 90 percent
complete and perhaps scheduled for late 2009 or early 2010. These are
projects for which the DOTs had already programmed funds and which
would have gone out anyway.

I also believe that the
undervalued DOT staff will valiantly attempt to double or triple their
output, but perhaps succeed only in relatively modest increases in such
a short period of time. Except of course for any state that for some
reason had a piece of a multi-billion dollar freeway ready — but I am
skeptical as to how many of those are really out there.

In
neither state has anyone appeared to have seriously considered ramping
up the routine maintenance work that is sorely in need of attention.
This could not be done overnight either. Instead of real maintenance,
the fix-it-first projects that they are pumping out are bigger capital
projects (5 to 50 million dollar range) which have had to go through
the design mill. Of course, things could be worse, as evidenced by the
states that are hawking multi-billion dollar freeway projects.

Does
Congress know what it is about to unleash? This looks like a repeat of
last year’s banking bailout. In a few months, everyone will be
wondering what happened to all the money, nothing much will have seemed
to change.

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