The Semi-Fast Track

The stimulus will help roads and transit. It's no panacea.
by | April 1, 2009

The stimulus will help roads and transit. It's no panacea.

With weather warming and days growing longer, the air is starting to fill with the sound of hammers as some of the nearly $800 billion in stimulus money that President Obama and Congress approved last February flows to states and localities.

Contrary to some early fears, money is actually getting spent, because a lot of it was required to be spent within the first six months or a year under the law. That's particularly true of much of the $45 billion or so going to transportation-related infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, airports, railroads, bike paths and sidewalks.

In truth, though, it's not that much money. I was among those hoping that $200 billion to $300 billion would go for transportation infrastructure. Isn't that what stimulus is about? Roads, train lines and ports. Get people to work building good things for the nation that will serve its interest for many decades.

But many competing interests also argued for the nation's attention and sliced off a large piece of the stimulus pie. In the end, only about $27 billion went to roads and bridges; $8.4 billion to local and regional mass transit; $8 billion to high- speed rail, $1.3 billion to Amtrak; and $1 billion to airport improvements. In addition, there is money for ports in a different section of the bill.

As these transportation dollars travel down from Washington, they diminish. My state of New York is scheduled to receive $2.8 billion. That sounds impressive at first, but less so when you consider the huge figures you hear thrown around for infrastructure projects in New York City alone. It would take nearly $9 billion, for example, just to create a new set of train tunnels under the Hudson River.

Still, while the dollars may be far from enough overall, there's no doubt that they can make a big difference when applied to one category or one specific project.

The biggest case in point was the last- minute decision by Obama and congressional Democrats to drop in the money for high-speed rail and for Amtrak's existing capital needs. Eight billion dollars is a good start on high-speed rail. The money will be distributed to states through the Federal Railroad Administration, without any matching requirements. Exactly which projects qualify for the money is up to the federal government, but the law says that priority be given to "intercity high-speed rail service." There have been designated high-speed rail corridors in this country now for more than a decade. Better rail service could be part of Obama's legacy.

Even if things go perfectly, most of this service will be higher-speed rail in the range of 90 to 120 mph -- not 180 to 200 mph like the European supertrains. But that's OK. David Gunn, the former Amtrak president, persuaded me years ago that gradually improving speeds and service using familiar technology has a better chance of success than leapfrogging to bullet trains.

Amtrak is the principal but not the only operator of intercity train service and equipment. North Carolina has a state railroad company dating back to before the Civil War. It owns many of the major tracks in the state. California's DOT has been teaming up with Amtrak to jointly provide intercity train service since the 1970s. Much of the $8 billion for high-speed rail is likely to end up in a model similar to that of California, where states supplement Amtrak's budget with their own money, which in this case would come through the feds.

Meanwhile, Amtrak gets $1.3 billion to spend right away on upgrading tracks, overhead lines and passenger cars. This big gift comes after years of surviving on year-to-year appropriations and without any long-term budgets at all. Even so, Amtrak could easily use 10 times that. The roughly half a billion dollars that the federal government contributed to Amtrak's operating budget in 2007 would amount to a rounding error on some of the nation's bigger highway projects.

Then there is local transit -- that is, light rail, trolleys, streetcars, buses and bus rapid transit. This sector gets $8.4 billion. Here, too, the amount is not exactly huge, when filtered through 50 states and hundreds of cities, but it's still substantial. The backlog of local transit projects waiting to be funded is simply astonishing. Many cities have considered abandoning federal funds in order to avoid the red tape and long years of waiting. This stimulus money could make a significant difference in their thinking.

And let us not forget smaller wheeled vehicles and our feet. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates point out that "roads and bridges" can mean bike paths and sidewalks. They don't have to be grade-separated freeways. Localities can even build bike paths using education funds, energy conservation dollars or community development block grants.

So where does that leave us? Here's an optimistic scenario: In perhaps five years, we will be out of this recession and have faster train service in four or five mega- regions around the country. We will have more streetcars, buses and light-rail lines. And our roads will be less crumbly. That isn't everything, but it's a start.

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