Sunday, February 16, 2014

Five-Year Anniversary of the Very Successful Transportation Stimulus Program!

Yes, I said “very successful.”  The surface transportation element of the emergency Stimulus bill, enacted five years ago when the economy was cratering, was very successful at meeting its objectives.  Heard something different?  I have to say that people who label the Stimulus bill a failure are essentially echoing partisan talking points.  Those talking points were created during the congressional debates on the bill and have continued to be used throughout its implementation and even to this day. 
What do I mean by success?  Above all, the economic effect of the entire bill saved the national economy from an even worse disaster than it has experienced.  I believe (following Paul Krugman) that the Stimulus was, in fact, too small, but at least it warded off complete collapse.
As for the surface transportation element, and specifically the “highway” portion, success had two key components.  First, it saved many jobs and many construction companies at a time when that industry was flat on its back.  Second, it allowed state DOTs to get a huge amount of work done at bargain rates. 
I say “highway” in quotes because one of the objectives of the folks I was working with on Stimulus issues (Smart Growth America and state advocacy groups) was to convince state DOTs that the Surface Transportation Program is not just a highway program and that they could have used Stimulus funds to expand their transit, bike/ped, and other programs.  We had less success than we wanted in that regard, I think largely because the intense pressure to get projects out the door discouraged a lot of innovation.  We had more luck encouraging DOTs to choose fix-it-first projects over highway widening projects, largely for the same reason: fix-it-first projects can be delivered faster.  The fact is that bids on construction projects were coming in so low that state DOTs were shoveling resurfacing and repair work out the door at an incredible rate.  (Don’t get me started on the issue of “shovel ready.”  I’ll save that for another time.)
The entire Stimulus bill was a balancing act between speed (the urgency of getting dollars into the economy) and innovation.  Although innovation was in short supply in the STP program, there was a lot of innovation in the related TIGER program.  When asked for my policy prescription for future Stimulus rounds, my recommendation was: Put more TIGER in your tank!  In the event, there was no second round of Stimulus, although USDOT has managed to keep some sort of TIGER program alive even in the darkest days of Austerity. 

The real disappointment was that the Stimulus was not repeated.  Think of where we could be if we could have continued that level of investment over the entire five-year period!  The economy would be stronger, thousands of engineers and planners would not have been lost to a stagnant economy, our transportation infrastructure would be moving toward a state of good repair, and transformative policies would be leading the way to a real 21st century transportation system, capable of meeting the challenges and opportunities ahead of us.

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