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December 19th, 2008
Building a Smarter Country

By Samuel I. Schwartz and Deena R. Schwartz

On October 14, 2008 I wrote an article for Blueprint America: Infrastructure Isn’t Partisan: Gridlock Sam’s Advice for the Next President. In it I proposed a six point transportation plan which continues to be relevant today that calls for President-elect Obama to:

1. Create a National Infrastructure Bank
2. Ensure safety in our infrastructure
3. Rebuild and expand our passenger and freight rail systems
4. Upgrade our air transport management systems
5. Modernize our ports
6. Level the playing field between highways, transit and other modes of transport

This broad outline should serve as the skeleton for President-elect Obama’s transport program but, by simply touting infrastructure as a short-term plan to spur job creation, we may lose the forest for the trees. Rather than choosing between projects that will create jobs and those that will have a meaningful impact on our nation’s infrastructure, President-elect Obama can do both by evaluating projects using the criteria described below.

I am joined in writing this paper by my daughter Deena Schwartz, a public policy analyst with experience studying poverty and labor markets.

Haste may make waste if we’re not careful
Since Barack Obama’s election to the presidency on November 4th the infrastructure community has been chomping at the bit. It has never had a president-elect who talked their language, “Infrastructure = Jobs.” The American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO) says $64 billion worth of road and bridge projects could be under contract within six months. Transit advocates have a pipeline of $25 billion worth of contracts that could be “on the street” in less than a year. The nation’s governors, meeting with Obama post-election, said they had $136 billion ready-to-go. Mayor from 427 cities say their wish list of “quick-burn” projects is $73 billion.

I absolutely encourage state and local elected officials to get their projects off the drawing boards ASAP. But, I caution the new White House not to accept a project simply because it will create jobs sooner than other better thought-out proposals that may create even more long-lasting jobs and be more sustainable. House minority leader John Boehner (R-OH) may have said it best when he warned that the infrastructure monies should not be used for “pork barrel spending masquerading as economic stimulus.” In short, there are worthy projects and wasteful projects. Here’s how the Obama administration should discern amongst the candidates.

Screen projects for impact on economy, environment and public safety

The obvious parameters are the number of jobs projects will create and how fast they can get started. Creating jobs quickly is fine, but we need to ensure that infrastructure projects will have long-lasting economic benefits beyond providing jobs during construction. The effects of the so-called “Bridge-to-nowhere” in Alaska would undoubtedly have a lesser impact on growth than the Dulles Metrorail Project, a new 23-mile transit line connecting Northern Virginia to the rest of the DC region.

We should add points for investment of private monies. This would encourage the formation of public-private partnerships (P-3’s) to leverage federal dollars and get projects built more quickly. There have been plenty of warnings of P-3’s and how government gets short-changed. Government needs to get smarter and build in safeguards, like business professor Joe Giglio’s formula creating P-3 boards including representatives from the government, the private partners and local business leaders. The intent is to see that the public interests are protected by the government, the greater good by local business leaders while the private sector gets a good return on its investment.

The screening process should include an equity analysis to consider the economic climate of the region where the money is to be spent. We have noticed that the states that have the largest wish-list tend to have lower unemployment rates than those at the bottom. Some of the poorer states may need more help getting their projects on-line. States should also work with the workforce development field to ensure that those most in need get the necessary job training and job placement assistance to obtain these jobs.

The Environment
President Obama has made it clear that we must re-build our infrastructure in a way that reduces our carbon footprint. In a recent speech unveiling his public works platform he said, “We’ll measure progress…by the jobs we create, by the energy we save…”

This would favor transit projects over highway projects. It means an agenda that crosses agencies encouraging smart growth and new urbanism. Obama recognizes the relationship between how we live, where we live and the impact on our environment and the contributions to green-house gases. Projects such as transit-oriented developments (TOD’s) would trump sprawl plans like highway extensions. Tysons Corner, Virginia is an excellent example of where investment in transit, by providing four rail stations to link it to the entire D.C. metro area, can reduce driving dramatically, increase density around stations (TOD’s), and thus, reduce the overall contribution of its residents and workers to greenhouse gasses. The Dulles project includes four stations in Tysons Corner where currently parking spaces outnumber residents by 10 to 1.

A sustainable agenda would increase the gas tax by at least 10 cents (what a great opportunity now, with gas at $2/gallon or less, to also index it to inflation) and encourage user fees for motor vehicles based on Time-Distance-Place (TDP) pricing as advocated by the D.C. transportation economist Gabriel Roth. Such fee structures are nothing new. We pay more for electricity in the summer and during the business day. Most toll roads are distance-based, the farther you travel the more you pay. And our hotels are place-based; Midtown Manhattan rooms are twice the rate or more of Hoboken rooms five miles away.

When we do build roads we should encourage complete streets, meaning access for all, including pedestrians, bike riders and public transit riders. Each project should include walkways, bike paths and transit where appropriate. The materials we use should be recyclables and the drainage systems designed with plantings and absorption elements to minimize runoff to our streams and waterways.

More than 42,000 people die on our roads in traffic crashes each year. More than 72,000 of our bridges are structurally deficient. The Minnesota bridge that collapsed in 2007 killing thirteen and injuring over 140 people was rated structurally deficient. The terrible and preventable train crash in California that claimed 25 lives on September 12, 2008 between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train emphasized the ancient safeguards on our rail systems.

We should set a goal to cut our traffic fatalities in half by 2020. We could put many traffic engineers and highway crews to work modernizing our traffic systems, installing roundabouts in lieu of signals in many locations ( a proven life-saver and energy saver), and expanding pedestrian and traffic safety programs in our towns and cities.

Eliminating every structurally deficient bridge in the country is a realistic goal. As Chief Engineer at NYC DOT I set in motion a program to do that for city-owned bridges nearly twenty years ago, and we’re just about there. As I stated in my October 14, 2008 article we, as a country, should set a goal to have no federal bridges rated structurally deficient by 2025, and no local bridge deficient by 2035. Now mind you that there are bridges considered functionally deficient because the traffic volumes exceeds the capacity of the roadway; we would not press for their inclusion for priority treatment. In fact, projects that would increase road capacity would be closely scrutinized for their impacts on the environment. Bridge repair may not be the most politically exciting topic, but it is something that can create jobs quickly and is desperately needed.

We recommend supporting projects that increase the safety of public transportation by rail, bus, ferry and air. Fail-safe signal systems that could have prevented September’s California train disaster should be accelerated country-wide. Similarly, the NextGen Air Transportation System using satellite-based navigation should be adopted.

We have an opportunity to put lots of people to work and build much-needed infrastructure. We can be smart about what we fund or we can squander mega-billions in public funds. It is incumbent upon our incoming administration to process applications for funding swiftly but wisely, weeding out those projects that provide only short-term economic benefits or are inconsistent with goals of a greener, more productive country. We should also see this as an opportunity to save tens of thousands of lives that are lost each year during the simple act of trying to get somewhere. Each decision should meet the litmus test of whether it will put people to work now to build a stronger country for the future.

Sam Schwartz is one of the leading transportation engineers in the United States, the New York traffic commissioner who coined the term “gridlock” in the 1980s, author of the daily “Gridlock Sam” column in the Daily News, founder of a traffic consulting and design firm that has been involved in many of NYC’s largest planning issues, including congestion pricing and construction of the new Mets stadium– and formerly a cab driver.

Deena Schwartz is a graduate student at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, focusing on Public Policy Analysis and anti-poverty policy.

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