Starting Down the Road to a Healthier Economy

Marking Labor Day at a time of stubbornly high unemployment, the President pivoted to a proven means of boosting the economy: Building infrastructure. This is key not just to generating short-term economic activity and jobs, but if designed well can put the U.S. on better, long-term competitive footing in the global economy and create good, green jobs. Thankfully the President's announcement about infrastructure investment, starting with a $50 billion downpayment, would take us down that road. There's a long way to go, however.

There’s no question of need – report after report has quantified the trillions of dollars of  investment needed to repair and enhance the roads, rail and walkways that hardwire our metropolitan regions together. To ensure that this adds up to more than a burst of spending, however, the new plan must make smart investments in a 21st-century transportation system. What does that look like? Rail, for starters, must be part of the plan, as it is for our Asian and European competitors in the global marketplace. However, we also need a larger, more flexible and cheaper array of mobility choices for metropolitan travelers, more bus rapid transit, for example. As well as new shuttles and jitneys that can serve suburban and rural areas effectively. And, of course, the least expensive and healthiest way to get around is walking (and biking), something that’s made easier for all by building and retrofitting roads so they routinely include sidewalks and bike lanes.

As I described in detail in testimony before the Environment and Public Works Committee this March, these kind of investments deliver not just a respectable tally of jobs, but also save tens if not hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil. So we get a double-bang for our buck: We generate good jobs and we keep some of billions we now send to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

And we get even more bang for our buck when we target these investments to fuel-saving public transportation projects. A few allied groups actually crunched the numbers and found that such projects generate nearly twice as many jobs per dollar as road construction. To be clear, this is not to say that we need no new roads (after all, we need space for cool, new hybrid-electric cars and rapid-transit bus lines). But it does show that public transportation has a leg up on roads when it comes to generating jobs.

The President’s proposal appears to recognize this fact, especially in its commitment to rail, by committing to “integration of high speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program...” as well as “Expanding investments in areas like safety, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and livability -- helping to build communities where people have choices about how to travel, including options that reduce oil consumption, lower greenhouse gases and expand access to job opportunities and housing that’s affordable.”

Also gratifying is a focus on transportation program reforms that should reduce government waste, specifically by “streamlining, modernizing and prioritizing surface transportation investments, consolidating more than 100 different programs and focusing on using performance measurement and ‘race to the top’ style competitive pressures to drive investment toward better policy outcomes.” This reads as if it draws from some of the best features of Transportation Chairman Oberstar’s bill unveiled last year as well as the work of the Bipartisan Policy Center which my colleague Colin Peppard has aided in the past.

In addition to rail and road, the President has now also committed to renewing aviation infrastructure. Specifically, to “rehabilitate or reconstruct 150 miles of runway…” and finally putting a Next Generation air traffic control system in place (moving from ground- to satellite-based), which would save a lot of fuel via more efficient routing of flights. I discussed the advantages of the latter in testimony before Chairman Markey’s Select Committee a couple of years ago.

There is much to laud in this proposal. There are some missing pieces, however. These are very big investments, and while the Administration endorses a national infrastructure bank championed by allies such as Building America’s Future, sources of revenue to capitalize the bank and otherwise finance the entire program are not wholly specified. On the other hand, the idea of lining up some money by cutting subsidies and tax breaks available to the exceedingly profitable oil and gas industry as well as from cutting bureaucratic waste via program consolidation are praiseworthy if insufficient.

It's also unclear if there is a strategy for enactment of a new transportation program by Congress. At this point in the process of enactment of the current law, which expired in 2003 but wasn’t renewed until 2005, the Bush Administration had offered its own legislative proposal which anchored the policy debate. This President must flesh out and clarify his preferred transportation program if he is to prevail in achieving an admirably stated purpose of the infrastructure bank, namely “an important departure from the federal government’s traditional way of spending on infrastructure through earmarks and formula-driven grants that are allocated more by geography and politics than demonstrated value.”

Such old habits die hard when it comes to federal programs encrusted in a history of wasteful pork-barrel politics. But it's nice to hear this President revving up the policy reform engine with this Labor Day infrastructure announcement. We're being lapped by other nations in the race to build 21st century transportation systems; I look forward to making up some serious ground in the coming months.