It felt a little like "Groundhog Day" in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, when lawmakers approved the "Jobs for Main Street" package, which includes nearly $40 billion in funding for transportation projects.
While Congress is right to take on the issue of high unemployment, and transportation investments are proven to create quality jobs, there is danger in pushing money out the door as fast as possible without a long-term plan for our nation's struggling transportation system.
The déjà vu started earlier this month when, just as they did last year, the states and the road lobby presented a "wish list" of spending for transportation projects (mostly highways) that could supposedly break ground in 120 days.
But we've learned a lot since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed almost a year ago. We've learned that, while the right federal investments can create thousands of new jobs over time, it is unrealistic to expect transportation funding to make a significant impact in 120 days or less. We've also learned that it's better for the economy and the environment to focus on repairing our roads and bridges rather than on building new outer-beltways and super-highways. Finally, we know now that thinking beyond the pavement and investing in innovative transportation can create more jobs and spur emerging new industries, as proven by the explosion of demand for high-speed passenger rail across the country.
These lessons should become part of a new long-term vision for transportation policy. For instance, rather than annually sending highway dollars to states based on vague "wish lists," Congress should prioritize bringing existing roads and bridges to a state of good repair. Federal investment could flow more toward hiring workers rather than land sales and the other overhead costs involved with new highways and lanes. That would also assure the roads and bridges that American families rely on every day are safer and more reliable.
Also, it is disappointing that the "jobs bill" that passed on Wednesday ignores an obvious trend by doing nothing to further the federal commitment to high-speed rail. Demand for high-speed rail funding has well exceeded the expectations that existed when the recovery bill was signed last year. Currently, there are close to $60 billion in project applications from more than 30 states competing for the first $8 billion in federal high-speed rail funding, which will go out in a few months. Domestic and foreign investors and private industry have taken notice of the government's initiative and the sector has exploded over the last few months, providing hope for new employment that can offset the massive losses in the automotive industry. All eyes are on Congress to see if they will follow through on the initial down payment in their next major transportation spending bill.
For the administration and Congressional leadership, the stakes for new spending are extremely high. They should learn from the lessons of the first stimulus, lay out a long-term vision that is in the public interest and that addresses our most important transportation challenges. And they should recognize that it won't happen in just 120 days.
Follow John Krieger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/uspirg