The new administration in Washington, D.C., is ready to pour billions of dollars into rescuing the national economy. By all rights, state and local governments should finally get the wherewithal to put people to work fixing leaky water mains, upgrading sewage treatment and improving waste disposal systems. But those may not be the priority items. Quite naturally, governments will decide they'll get the most immediate returns by repairing bridges, paving new roads and constructing other expensive -- and highly visible -- public works.
It is imperative to put this fiscal stimulus in place as soon as possible. So it's not a given that the outcome will be a better-protected environment. It will be tempting to throw caution to the wind and bypass rigorous review of the potential impacts on wildlife, wetlands, clean water supplies and metropolitan air quality.
Just look at what's happening in California. I've never been one to stand in front of the bulldozers, but it is worrisome that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger already has begun pushing to break ground on some of his state's biggest public works initiatives. The governor pressured state legislators to exempt eight highway projects from standard agency reviews under the state's Environmental Quality Act. The state plans to spend $14 billion on the projects, employing 260,000 workers, and the governor maintains that bypassing time-consuming environmental impact reviews is justified to "put shovels into the dirt now, put people to work now."
All state and local officials share Schwarzenegger's sense of urgency. President Barack Obama and the new Congress will have to trust these officials to decide where much of the $700 billion or so in freshly minted stimulus funds can be spent most effectively. Many public officials will be tempted to agree with John Horsley, the director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, that "the green that most workers want to see is the green of a paycheck."
That conclusion is hard to dispute, but it's also the kind of narrow thinking that state and local transportation agencies have yet to outgrow. For the past 15 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state pollution-control regulators have worked hard to simplify permit procedures, devise performance measures and expedite environmental reviews so they can make timely decisions that can stand up in court. With a few exceptions, however, state transportation engineers have yet to reciprocate. Too many still regard polluted air and water and diminished natural habitat as negligible prices to pay for the economic returns from building straighter and safer highways.
Just about everybody now drives faster and more safely on the four-lane roads in the Interstate highway system that President Eisenhower decided to build in the 1950s. But Interstate construction also divided urban neighborhoods, concentrated traffic congestion, paved over valleys and waterfronts, cleared the way for sprawling development and bypassed small towns, which then shriveled in isolation. The Interstate system is heralded by some as a useful model for a new infrastructure binge, but state and local officials should remember that 50 years later they are still contending with the consequences.
Eventually, mass transit projects, wind and solar power incentives and carbon-emission controls will begin reversing some of the damage. But governments ought to be investing more on the ground to restore urban brownfields, repair blighted rural landscapes and save wild lands from destruction. A jobs program modeled on the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps could fix deteriorating roads and buildings and restore degraded wildlife habitat in state and national parks and forests. A couple of years back, the Western Governors Association asked Congress to foster a "restoration economy" with funds for reclaiming abandoned mines, replanting heavily logged forests, rehabilitating eroded rangelands and cleansing polluted trout streams. Members of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators from seven Midwest states wrote to congressional leaders, urging them to channel stimulus funds into state efforts to clean up the Great Lakes by removing toxic sediments, fixing sewer overflows and restoring wetlands.
Those ideas shouldn't be dismissed as merely feel-good measures. Restoring wetlands, aquatic ecosystems and wildlife habitat would prevent damaging floods and spare governments the much more onerous costs of future water cleanups. The Midwest legislators say a $130 million investment in ready-to-go restoration projects in the Great Lakes region would generate nearly 3,000 jobs. For a troubled economy, the payoff would be substantial. For a beleaguered environment, the benefit could be lasting.
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