A few weeks ago we wrote about how the federal government’s guidance to target funds in “Economically Distressed Areas” is fundamentally flawed. It basically reinforces the ‘peanut butter’ approach of spending infrastructure dollars around very thinly. A new GAO report found that it’s getting worse.
The White House's Jobs and Economic Growth Forum yesterday was a fascinating, yet frustrating event. The president and his team were very forceful about the need for action and the seriousness of our current situation. Yet he was also quite sober given the fiscal challenges we’re facing as a nation and the tension between short and long term priorities. After sitting in the infrastructure session yesterday, it is clear that there are no easy answers. Of course, there were some familiar calls for ramping up spending on yet another heap of “shovel-ready” projects.
With all the hubbub around job creation it is easy to overlook the fact that the federal government did provide guidance on how best to geographically target funds for highway projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). That law directs transportation agencies to place priority on “Economically Distressed Areas” for project selection of ARRA funds. Ok, makes sense. It is natural to want to boost jobs in those communities that are suffering.
Congress seems intent on once again using infrastructure spending to address the nation’s rising unemployment. The real shame here is not whether this is--or isn’t--a good idea but that we don’t know one way or the other. The promise of the recovery package (formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA) was for an unprecedented approach to transparency, accountability, and performance.
Some of us here at The Avenue are always poking our heads into each other’s offices and referencing great “metro” songs, ranging from the obligatory anti-sprawl anthem “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders to PJ Harvey’s romantic “You Said Something” to Art Brut’s witty defense of public transportation in “The Passenger.” Always choice, despite their vintage, are songs by Talking Heads. David Byrne, the band’s lead songwriter, embraced space and geography in many songs with scales ranging from neighborhood, to municipal, to metropolitan, to the super-regional and national.
Lost in the hubbub about health care last week were some remarkable comments from U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. While certainly not as weighty as many of the issues Washington is wrestling with now that Congress is back in session, they represent a sea-change in rhetoric about national transportation policy. “[We] want to allow counties and cities to work together to develop regional plans reflecting both regional and national priorities. Then we'd fund them directly. The fact is, metro areas hold over 80 percent of the U.S. population. They're major centers of economic activity.
Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden trumpeted and defended the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) by ticking off progress made, goals achieved, and milestones met. In addition to these quantifications, the vice president talked about "ancillary benefits" such as improving short-term coordination among federal departments, and long-lasting enhancements in the competence of government. But there was another benefit he didn't mention: the unique opportunity for the stimulus package to shine a bright light on other existing areas of domestic policy.
Infrastructure—roads and rails, ports and pipes, bits and bytes—determines how efficiently and rapidly people, goods, and information move within and across our major metropolitan markets, driving their success and prosperity. It's only slightly hyperbolic to contend that the past 12 months marked a new era in U.S. infrastructure.