What the Stimulus Package may have in common with Detroit

My friend Barbara McCann, communications consultant and coordinator of the "Complete Streets" campaign, is my guest on Switchboard today, penning a terrific piece I'm sure you'll enjoy:

Right from the start, the US automakers looking for handouts on Capitol Hill were greeted with skepticism, reprimanded by Congress for being out of touch with America’s changing transportation needs.  But Congress is preparing to turn around and hand out dollars to another sector of the transportation industry that seems to share the myopia of Detroit.

State transportation agencies are still dedicating most of their federal transportation dollars to churning out roads built only for cars, ignoring changing demographics, the drop in driving, and the clear preference that Americans have expressed for transportation investments that will bring them a greater variety of low-cost transportation options.  A national survey by Harris Interactive fielded in December of 2007 found respondents would divvy up each transportation dollar with 37 cents for roads for cars, 41 cents for public transportation, and 22 cents for bicycling and walking projects.  This mirrors the results of many local transportation surveys. Yet the federal transportation program now directs 79 cents of each taxpayer dollar to roads for cars, 20 cents to public transportation, and just one cent to projects that include safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. 

The stimulus package seems destined to make matters worse as state transportation agencies propose to focus most of the spending on old road expansion projects. These projects would add highway capacity for cars even though the amount of driving has now dropped for eleven months straight.  Such single-purpose highway expansions would only increase our dependence on foreign oil while cutting off other travel options and doing little to spur associated economic investment. 

For the package to really aid recovery, Congress needs to tell transportation agencies much of what it asked of the automakers:  Look forward – and come up with a new plan.  The projects funded by this recovery package should not simply replicate old spending patterns.  They can do more than provide jobs: they can help provide Americans with transportation choices that are easier on their wallets while spurring economic growth.  

These projects should build complete streets that are safe and comfortable for bicycle riders, transit patrons, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities, so everyone has more ways to get around – while avoiding paying the going price for gasoline. All across the country, communities are ready to launch projects to pour sidewalks, paint bike lanes, and install curb ramps; improve bus stops and pedestrian crossings, and rebuild intersections with cutting edge features to improve safety for everyone.  These projects are often labor-intensive and small enough in scale to ramp up quickly, and can transform formerly ‘incomplete’ streets into inviting corridors for the 40 percent of metro area trips that are two miles or less.

The stimulus can also be a down payment on completing our woefully under-funded public transportation networks.  Americans may be shunning their father’s GM, but they are clamoring for more frequent and expanded bus and train service, evidenced by record ridership on systems across the country. Transit agencies have figured out how to deliver new products that consumers really want, such as light-rail and prioritized bus service.  They need a higher level of investment to get the new infrastructure in place quickly.  The infrastructure spending could help cities and towns across the country implement plans to create vibrant new live-work-play centers with transit access at their heart. Such transit-oriented development has proven a powerful model for growth in communities from Seattle to Denver to Charlotte, North Carolina.

As the potential size of the stimulus package has grown, so have the stakes.  Congress could end up distributing one or two year’s worth of federal  transportation investments through this package.  This ‘shovel ready’ spending could dig the nation a big hole, producing more high-speed highways that endanger pedestrians, encourage greenhouse gas emissions, and lock Americans into paying too much for gasoline.  Or it could invest in a future of greater safety, lower costs, and revitalized communities. Americans are ready for a new direction for the government, for the economy – and for our transportation system.  The stimulus package should take us in that new direction.