Dec. 13, 2008
As talk about infrastructure stimulus heats up and as state leaders prepare a wish list of projects to propose, we have a historic opportunity to advance new transportation goals in Wisconsin that meet the challenges of the 21st century. In addition to spurring our economy, targeted and wise infrastructure stimulus investments should help to solve our biggest transportation problems and produce real results for the long haul.
It is not enough to simply spend money. As many have pointed out, America's transportation system isn't just broke, it's also broken. And Congress would be wrong to assume that with transportation more is always better. On the contrary, transportation contributes to many of America's most pressing problems.
Our transportation system is the chief source of our nation's addiction to oil, consuming two out of every three barrels, and leaving America vulnerable to volatile prices and hostile foreign regimes.
Each year Americans waste billions of dollars and millions of hours stuck in traffic - a problem that is often made worse by construction of new highways.
Too many transportation projects like Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" have been embarrassing boondoggles that erode confidence in government and divert dollars from more productive uses.
Clearly, not every infrastructure dollar is equally well spent. As departments of transportation across the country eagerly offer wish lists, what rules should be established?
There must be a commitment to spend for results rather than simply to inject dollars into the economy. The current federal transportation system primarily collects gas taxes from the states and then pumps those dollars back based on outdated formulas forged by political compromises that had nothing to do with achieving national goals.
For decades, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on highway projects with little evaluation and no accountability. That must change. Spending must be based on allocating dollars where they will yield the greatest results and guided by clear goals for what the transportation system should accomplish.
Thus the next Congress should spend taxpayers' money more wisely by focusing transportation dollars on solving our nation's biggest problems. Federal transportation money should be spent only on projects that produce real results over the long haul - for example, by reducing our dependence on oil, alleviating congestion, improving safety and supporting healthy, sustainable communities.
For its part, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and other state DOTs should report on the results of how transportation stimulus money was spent. That sounds like common sense, but it would actually be a major advance. States should report back on the extent to which the projects funded with stimulus money increased or decreased jobs, energy security, carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle miles traveled. This accountability will help make sure money is not misspent.
In doing so, a transportation stimulus should move the nation toward a vision of the future and also protect the nation's existing transportation assets. Emphasis should be placed on expanding clean, efficient transportation choices for Americans by prioritizing investment of new funds for street cars, light rail, commuter rail, rapid bus service, high-speed intercity rail and other forms of modern public transportation. The stimulus should allocate at least as much money to these transportation choices as to roads and highways. Doing so will encourage transportation investments that build dynamic and accessible communities, where more Americans can walk, bike or take transit to get where they need to go. Meanwhile, stimulus money allocated to highways and bridges must first address long-deferred maintenance and repair projects instead of new highway expansions.
Here in Wisconsin, a stimulus package could put people to work on vital projects we will need for the future, such as the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line, high speed intercity rail that connects our major metropolitan areas and fixing Wisconsin's 1,300 structurally deficient bridges. These aren't just good jobs programs to get through the recession. These are projects that will improve our economy for the 21st century.
By ensuring that infrastructure stimulus money is spent wisely, we can ensure that Americans put back to work today can feel proud of what they've built for the future.
Bruce Speight is an Advocate with the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, www.wispirg.org. Paul M. Weyrich, a Racine native, is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.