More on Transit in the Stimulus

Guest-blogged by Will Schroeer, state policy director, Smart Growth America

1. I suggested in my previous post that various stories were circulating about what happened to transit in the stimulus. The story is getting much clearer now. This post, linking to a great Rachael Maddow clip with Rep. DeFazio, is a must read & watch.

2. The picture of what we lose if transit continues to get the short end of the stick is becoming very clear. See “The United States of Transit Cuts” for a review of the breadth and depth of cuts we are planning a) at a time of record ridership, b) at a time when people need a cheap way to get to work to keep their jobs, c) at a time when people are scratching their heads wondering “how can we get a lot of money into the economy quickly?”, d) at a time when polls find overwhelming preference for spending stimulus money on transit and repair.

3. Alert reader Betsy Kane asks, I think rhetorically, about

“the emphasis on so-called “shovel-ready” projects. Is there something about paying a planner or engineer in the design stages of a project that is less “real” than paying a backhoe operator? If the object is to get money and paychecks flowing in the domestic economy, does the income of the engineer or planner not flow as readily into the greater economy as quickly as that of a laborer?”

Answer: Paying a planner will be eligible under the transportation stimulus dollars that come out. And incoming chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisors Christina Romer has noted that the stimulus should not “just produce jobs for burly men.” But when pressed about the current bill, congressional leaders protest that backhoe versus planner or new construction versus repair is for states to decide, not Congress. What’s frustrating is that Congress knows what states will spend on. SGA has collected lists put together by 24 states, and by and large states say that given blank checks, they will build new roads.

In any case, it looks now like Congress is not going to put meaningful screens on the transportation money. So, the fight on how that gets spent will be at the state level. If you care, find a state/local group that works on these issues.

Ms. Kane goes on to make several arguments that I pass on as “featured comment”:

“Somehow, we think that people moving heaps of earth and asphalt around is “real” whereas adding value as a result of intelligent exertion is frivolous or inauthentic.

“If the point is to produce usable infrastructure in the shortest amount of time, that’s a different story; but that’s never the stated justification. Rather, the “shovel-ready” aspect always seems to be justified by reference to getting the stimulus funds flowing ASAP. But if getting funds flowing is the key, the breaking-ground aspect is irrelevant.

“In any case, building new roads will just subsidize more spec sprawl, which was a key cause of the housing bubble, the financing crisis, and the massive overextension of ordinary households on the basis of speculative returns.”

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.