That's how I read this Washington Post article which suggests the road and highway lobby may win out over the 21st century in the composition of the economic stimulus package to be offered in January:
Most of the infrastructure spending being proposed for the massive stimulus package that Obama and congressional Democrats are readying, however, is not exactly the stuff of history, but destined for routine projects that have been on the to-do lists of state highway departments for years. Oklahoma wants to repave stretches of Interstates 35 and 40 and build "cable barriers" to keep wayward cars from crossing medians. New Jersey wants to repaint 88 bridges and restore Route 35 from Toms River to Mantoloking. Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to widen 1.5 miles of Scottsdale Road.
None of this in itself is bad. Maintaining what we've got is necessary. But what does this mean for the more important projects - those that will not only create jobs but provide lasting economic growth and value?
On the campaign trail, Obama said he would "rebuild America" with an "infrastructure bank" run by a new board that would award $60 billion over a decade to projects such as high-speed rail to take the country in a more energy-efficient direction. But the crumbling economy, while giving impetus to big spending plans, has also put a new emphasis on projects that can be started immediately -- "use it or lose it," Obama said last week -- and created a clear tension between the need to create jobs fast and the desire for a lasting legacy...
The Obama transition team is aware of the tension created by its goal of immediate stimulus but contends it can be resolved. For one thing, one aide said, some of the most legacy-building aspects of the recovery plan will be in areas other than transportation infrastructure -- such as expanding the electric grid, retrofitting schools to make them energy efficient and modernizing medical record-keeping.
Defending the emerging list of projects, the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said there simply is a vast need for repairs. But the aide said that the Obama team also has its eye out for longer-term projects to invest in, and that for all the emphasis on quick spending, the recovery plan is considered a two-year undertaking. What is still to be determined is how some of those more ambitious projects would be chosen and how that money would be apportioned.
That aide doesn't really understand what he or she is talking about if that's what they believe provides "legacy". It is essential and at least 30 years overdue for America to stop subsidizing sprawl and start investing in mass transit alternatives, especially rail. Expanding the electric grid is valuable, but the other two mentioned - retrofitting schools and modernizing medical records - are just not significant compared to investing in new transit infrastructure. This is a time for thinking big and boldly, not to pull back and think small-time.
Some argue that it's OK if the economic stimulus doesn't focus on change, since later funding could provide the big investments we really need:
The construction industry also sees a two-step process. "Do the rinky-dink projects, the smaller projects," said Frank Rapoport, head of the global infrastructure practice at the McKenna, Long & Aldrich law firm. Then, later in 2009, he said, the government should use any leftover stimulus money to leverage private equity to tackle larger challenges, possibly via Obama's proposed infrastructure bank....
But that plan assumes that there will be enough money, political will and public support left over after an initial burst of spending to fuel broader investments. It is unclear how much money will be devoted to infrastructure in the stimulus package, which could surpass $500 billion. But the highway officials association has identified more than 5,000 road and bridge projects costing $64 billion that are ready to go, and the transit officials' association has identified 736 projects costing $12.2 billion that could start within 90 days.
If the stimulus funds many of those projects in the short term, there could be less appetite for increasing Washington's long-term investment beyond the roughly $50 billion a year it spends annually now. And on Capitol Hill, members of both parties agree that the focus has to be on the short term.
"Filling the potholes or repaving a stretch of road may not be as visual as the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge, but that paved road is going to make a lot of difference in people's lives," said Jim Berard, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Will there be political will and money" for later spending? "We don't know. We'll build that bridge when we come to it. Trying to do bigger-type infrastructure improvement at this point would be irresponsible. You'd be fiddling while Rome burst into flames."
I don't see anything remotely good or optimistic in that. At all. Given how much money has been committed to various bailouts - the overall stimulus could reach $1 trillion - that's going to make it politically difficult to push the kind of large investments in transportation, like a national high speed rail network, that we need to both recover from this economic crisis and provide long-term growth for the economy the way New Deal projects did in the 1930s. The Congressional spokesman certainly didn't sound that committed - in fact he dismissed "bigger-type infrastructure improvement."
The only thing irresponsible here is NOT making those kinds of improvements. Our economic crisis is largely due to overdependence on oil and sprawl, which has now failed to provide growth and security as it once did. The economic and environmental costs are enormous. If we're going to provide energy independence as Obama has long proposed, we need to start immediately investing in the kind of major projects needed to get us down a more sustainable path.
Other officials understand the need to not throw good money after bad:
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is proud that his city was able to quickly rebuild the Interstate 35 bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007 while making sure to include capacity for a future transit line on it. But he worries that many of the road and bridge upgrades around the country will not be done in a similarly farsighted way, given the time pressures.
"The quickest things we can do may not be the ones that have the most significant long-term impact on the green economy," he said. "Unless we push a transit investment, this will end up being a stimulus package that rebalances our transportation strategy toward roads and away from [what] we need to get off our addiction to oil."
The details of the stimulus aren't fully public yet, but the above suggests that concerns over Obama's transportation priorities are valid. We need to push back hard against delaying big projects. One way to do this is to go to change.gov and let your voice be heard for high speed rail as part of the stimulus. Sure, it's possible that California will still get funded in a later bill - perhaps John Kerry's - but the more money that goes to road projects in the stimulus, the harder that later battle will be.