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.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Boxer Amendment Requires NEPA Review for Stimulus Projects

|
A transit villain earlier in the week, Boxer came through for NEPA in the end. The final draft of the Senate’s economic recovery bill will require all projects funded by the stimulus to have approval under the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA. Sponsored by Barbara Boxer, the NEPA amendment was adopted late Thursday (full […]

City Making Its List for Obama Stimulus

|
At tomorrow’s City Council Joint Transportation and Public Works Committee, the city will begin it’s quest to get bailout funds from the future Obama Administration.  For those of you not paying attention to national politics, the President-Elect seems to be heading towards an infrastructure investment plan, "the largest since the creation of the national highway […]

Calpirg, Smart Growth America Slam State Stimulus Spending

|
When the government passed the stimulus bill last spring, it set a 120 day deadline for states to allocate at least half of transportation funds in the bill. As that deadline passes today, CALPIRG and Smart Growth America released a report detailing how California is spending its stimulus dollars. The news isn’t good.  Despite pretty […]

Polly Trottenberg Tapped For Senior U.S. DOT Spot

|
It’s a happy Friday for transportation wonks: the White House has nominated Polly Trottenberg, executive director of Building America’s Future, as assistant secretary for policy at the federal DOT. Polly Trottenberg, tapped as assistant DOT secretary (Photo: NewTalk) Trottenberg’s ascension signals that the Obama administration will make transit a serious priority and encourage a more […]

Freight Rail, Streetcars Are Tops in Stimulus’ TIGER Chase

|
The Obama administration today announced the winners of $1.5 billion stimulus in highly competitive stimulus grants under the program known as Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER. Southeastern and midwestern freight rail projects were the day’s biggest winners, with urban streetcar projects also making a big splash. Freight rail in Chicago, where the CREATE […]

OC Using Stimulus Funds to Widen the 91

|
Last stop before the 91/241 interchange.  Photo: kllm14369/Flickr "That ain’t Change, it’s more of the same!" was an applause line used frequently during last fall’s presidential campaign by Senator Joe Biden to critique many of the proposed policies of Senator McCain and Governor Palin.  Watching how stimulus funds are spent in California, transportation reformers and […]