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October 1st, 2009
The No. 13 Line
Where’s the Beef?

By Samuel I. Schwartz and Morgan Whitcomb

13line_beefWe work for an engineering consulting company specializing in infrastructure. Everywhere we go people are asking us about how much of a boon the stimulus plan (formally the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, (ARRA)) has been for us. They seem surprised when we respond it has had little or no impact on our business. For us it conjures up the image of the famed Wendy’s commercial from the 1980’s used to blast the size of its competitors’ hamburgers with the question, “Where’s the beef?” Walter Mondale, on his way to the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination attacked opponent Senator Gary Hart with the same query.

In searching for the beef, one finds that although ARRA is a $787 billion program only about $130 billion or 17% is for infrastructure. Because construction takes more time to “rev up” compared to social programs, the 2009 share for public works is even less. The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) latest bi-monthly report on the Recovery Act estimates that by the end of the 2009 fiscal year, 6% of recovery spending would be given to Highways Infrastructure Investment. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reallocated $61-million (1.2% of 2009 fiscal year spending) to the Federal Transit Authority for transit projects. The bulk (76%) of the spending is going towards Medicaid and the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.

ARRA has clearly created a windfall for paving contractors. Almost half the highway funds go towards pavement improvement, and 23% to pavement widening and new pavement. Another 12.5% goes toward bridge construction, replacement and improvement. The amount outlaid to highways this early in the game is not a surprise given the “shovel ready” requirement of the Recovery Act. The GAO points this out and observes that most of these pavement projects can be planned, engineered and executed within three years. Repaving the country clearly puts people to work (The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee attributed 48,000 jobs to ARAA by June 30th) but does it improve our country and help the economy in the long run?

We maintain that the shovel-ready paving jobs most likely were the easy ones to do (i.e. the road surfaces were a little cracked and uneven); really “bad” roads (having subsurface problems, safety hazards, going over bridges) would have required time-consuming engineering and are probably left to rounds 2 and 3 of ARRA. We offer reservations on the long-term economic impact of current ARRA spending on infrastructure for two main reasons. The current transportation bill just expired on September 30th and it could take months or even a year or longer for a new bill to be passed. Simultaneously, in a penny-wise pound foolish approach, half the states are cutting their transportation programs due to dire finances. This double-whammy could cause a drop in overall spending.

The good news for our quality of life is that nearly half the states are looking to improve and add rail transit. In July, states had submitted “pre-applications” for $102.5 billion to the Federal Railroad Administration for ARRA dollars. In August, about 20 states had submitted applications totaling around $7 billion. The ‘winners’ will be announced in October. But still rail spending appears to be a pittance compared to highway expenditures.

This is a shame, because the rail apportionment is the most forward-looking of the programs, and allows for work to continue for a decade. As opposed to the “shovel-ready” requirement of the FHWA dollars, it provides money for advanced planning, but only 50 cents on the dollar compared to 100% federal funding for construction. We think this is a mistake. It is the advanced planning and engineering that unleashes the progressive ‘big bucks.’

The ‘sexiest’ projects to come out of ARRA will be the high-speed rail corridors. Texas, surprisingly, has taken the lead in this race with the $1.7 billion “Texas T-Bone” plan connecting Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. California, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania are among the states in the “hunt” for high-speed rail.

Not all ARRA funding is going towards hot-shot transit projects through the rail grant. We call for a leveling of the playing field when it comes to funding bus rapid transit (BRT) versus light rail. Until now buses were less efficient and more polluting than rail. But, the 2010 BRT vehicles match light rail for speed (when dedicated right-of-way is provided), pollution and energy use. They can be built at about a third the cost of light rail, and it is possible to take these projects from concept to completion in a short amount of time. Nonetheless, light rail can be a better choice for very heavy used corridors on city streets, like Manhattan’s 42nd Street, for the fact that on-street rail is less likely to be blocked by cars than bus lanes.

Highway projects can also have some pizzazz if they are thoughtful and reflect the need for our country to become more energy efficient and to lower our carbon footprint. We urge a “complete streets” approach to highway construction in which transit, pedestrians and bike riders are seriously considered in the design. Complete streets are also a smart investment (i.e. American Reinvestment and Recovery Act), as economic returns from transportation investments which are multi-modal and connect people to regional cores can have returns up to 100 more than other investments. Had Robert Moses, New York’s legendary bridge builder in the mid-twentieth century, thought in complete streets terms he would never have built the Verrazano Bridge in 1964 with no rail, bike access or sidewalks. As a sidebar, every major New York City bridge built prior to 1910 had rail; no bridges built in the past century have had rail! New streets design should also address other 21st century threats to quality of life, by being built completely from the sub-ground up, with trees to improve air quality and porous pavements or water capturing systems to prevent flooding and water pollution.

Speaking of bridges, we have a hefty bill just to get our bridges out of the “structurally deficient” categorically (12% of the nation’s bridges or more than 72,000 structures are rated as such). The federal program has historically supported the very expensive rehab of bridges but not the very efficient low-cost maintenance programs. We urge the feds to reinforce good maintenance for federal dollars.

ARRA has reached the six month milestone with mixed results for the public works of our country. The beef may be thin but we are guardedly optimistic that thicker burgers are on their way. And in our opinion we will have lots of toppings offered for rail passengers, bus riders, pedestrians, bikers and bridge builders. This may just be the best burger ever!

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