Economic Stimulus for the 21st Century or Roads to Nowhere?

State Transportation Wish Lists Show Outdated Priorities and the Need for Congress to Prevent Misspending

President-elect Obama has declared that the next recovery plan must do more than just pump money into the economy. It will also create the infrastructure that America needs for the 21st century.


Maryland PIRG Foundation

President-elect Obama has declared that the next recovery plan must do more than just pump money into the economy. It will also create the infrastructure that America needs for the 21st century.

This fall, Congress asked states to submit lists of “ready-to-go” transportation infrastructure projects that could be funded by the stimulus package. Examination of lists from sixteen state departments of transportation (DOTs) indicates that the broader goals articulated by President-elect Obama could be undermined if Congress, the Administration and the states do not establish forward-looking rules for spending stimulus fund.

Only about one-third of state DOTs have released to the public the project lists they submitted to Congress. However, a majority of the sixteen that have come to light are badly out of touch with the current trends, public priorities and transportation system needs that underpin the President-elect’s declaration.

Most stimulus project lists from state DOTs prioritize new highways while paying relatively little attention to repairing
crumbling bridges and roads and even less emphasis on forward-looking transportation options, such as public transit and intercity rail. As a result, they are out of synch with President-elect Obama’s stated intention to use smart spending to reduce America’s dependence on oil and emissions of global warming pollution.

On average, the sixteen states would spend more than 75 percent of funds on highways and only 16 percent on public transit or intercity rail. In fact, seven of the sixteen states would allocate 1 percent or less, including four that would allocate nothing at all. This would be a step backward from even the grossly inadequate share of transit funding in past federal transportation laws. It also runs counter to Americans’ stated preferences, the decline in automobile use, and rapidly increasing transit ridership.

Of the twelve state lists for which adequate data on types of proposed highway spending were available, on average, states would spend the majority of highway funds for new and expanded roads rather than on the backlog of repair and maintenance projects. Half the states would use less than a third of total road spending on repair and maintenance. To prevent a misspending of recovery funds, Congress the next Administration and state leaders should apply six principles: (1) Highways should receive no more funds than the combined total for public transit, intercity rail, and bicycle and pedestrian projects; (2) Any road funds should go first to maintenance and repair of structurally deficient bridges and roads, not new highways or lanes; (3) Public transportation funds should include support for operations so agencies can accommodate the rising demand. (4) Surface Transportation Program highway funds should be distributed as under current law so that a portion of resources flow directly to metropolitan areas that know best about which local projects are needed; (5) All states, cities, and agencies should publicly disclose the stimulus lists they have submitted; (6) Direct recipients of stimulus funds should report on how money was spent and any transportation spending that it displaced.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to spend stimulus money on things that will move the country toward a smart, safe, energy-reducing 21st century transportation system. It will be up to Congress, the Obama Administration, and the states to make sure that happens. So far, however, too many of the states are off to a troubling start.