08/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who's Still Being Left out in the Stimulus?

The most vulnerable communities are not yet getting the stimulus help they need. Sadly, we predicted this:

First, we need to invest [the federal stimulus] where people live. More than two-thirds of Americans -- including the vast majority of the nation's poor -- live in the top 100 metro areas. These major cities and the older, inner-ring suburbs that surround them are the economic and social engines of the nation. We get the best return on our investment by focusing our efforts on these urban areas, rebuilding their transit systems, schools, and even sewers, and preparing their workforce for a global economy that increasingly values technological know -how more than broad shoulders.

That's what I wrote in the Huffington Post all the way back in mid-January, when the federal recovery package still seemed like the potential answer to many of the nation's most entrenched problems. So far, however, states aren't spending the money in the way I and many other advocates had hoped.

In the New York Times last week, reporters Michael Cooper and Griff Palmer undertook one of the most complete analyses of state-level stimulus spending so far. The results? Cities -- where the vast majority of America's poor live -- are getting the short-end of the stick:

According to an analysis by the New York Times of 5,274 transportation projects approved so far -- the most complete look yet at how states plan to spend their stimulus money -- the 100 largest metropolitan areas are getting less than half the money from the biggest pot of transportation stimulus money. In many cases, they have lost a tug of war with state lawmakers that urban advocates say could hurt the nation's economic engines.

The stimulus law provided $26.6 billion for highways, bridges and other transportation projects, but left the decision on how to spend most of it to the states, which have a long history of giving short shrift to major metropolitan areas when it comes to dividing federal transportation money. Now that all 50 states have beat a June 30 deadline by winning approval for projects that will use more than half of that transportation money, worth $16.4 billion, it is clear that the stimulus program will continue that pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas.

It doesn't have to be this way. The federal Department of Transportation should direct its $1.5 billion in discretionary stimulus funds to target the unmet needs of urban America. State-level decision-makers should also be encouraged to put aside parochial political concerns and provide meaningful aid to vulnerable communities in urban areas. Rural regions also need to get more useful help, like expanding broadband and improving water systems in rural regions rather than building more sprawl-inducing mega-highways.

As we move ahead, the federal transportation bill working its way through Congress offers another terrific opportunity to invest specifically in urban infrastructure needs. Millions of low-income Americans in our cities rely exclusively on public transportation and need more accessible and more affordable ways to get to jobs and school. The transportation bill should include dollars to help boost transit systems' operations budgets so fare hikes are kept from sapping the wallets of people who can least afford it.

The stimulus still can have a long-lasting positive impact on urban and rural America. But we've got to get our priorities straight. And if two years from now all we have to show for our $787 billion is hundreds of miles of new highways, just don't say I didn't warn you.

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