Smart Growth, or Just More Highways?

A Smart Growth America report checks in on how states are using their stimulus money.

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Last week, U.S. states reached the 120-day deadline to make plans for half of their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) money to transportation projects. To evaluate the current progress of states, Smart Growth America, a coalition of organizations that works to improve community planning across the United States, released a report that discusses and challenges the decisions involving state stimulus money.

Some of the main matters that were weighed in their “120 Days of Stimulus Spending” report were how the funds were spent and whether or not they solved the state’s most important transportation issues.

The findings were presented in such a way so as to not bully local governments for poor decisions, but to serve as a guide to get cities back on track while they make plans to allocate the remainder of their funds. Smart Growth America prefaced their data with full disclosure on the act: “The ARRA funding arrives not only during a recession, but also at a time of embarrassingly large backlogs of road and bridge repairs, inadequate and underfunded public transportation systems, and too few convenient, affordable transportation options.”

They make it clear that there is no amount of money that could solve all of America’s transportation issues. However, the failure of most states lies within the inability to make the most of their stimulus money, in terms of the ARRA “Statement of Purposes”:

1. To preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery.
2. To assist those most impacted by the recession.
3.To provide investments needed to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health.
4. To invest in transportation, environmental protection, and other infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits.
5. To stabilize State and local government budgets, in order to minimize and avoid reductions in essential services and counterproductive state and local tax increases.

In the spirit of the ARRA purposes, Smart Growth America has determined that repair and maintenance jobs work better than projects that include the creation of new roads, since they are able to spend money and create jobs faster. If new capacity is needed, states are urged by Smart Growth America to allocate that money to public transit projects, which produce 31% more jobs than the construction of new roads and bridges.

A few states seemed to administer this by pulling their funds for road repair and public transit. Of the best, Washington, D.C. used the money particularly wisely by focusing solely on the repair of roads and using 41.5% of its total budget to expand transportation choices for public transportation, walking and biking.

Among the poor findings, Kentucky is highlighted for spending 88% of its $421 million on new roads and capacity, rather than allocating more money to make repairs on its 573 structurally deficient bridges.

But, most disappointing is the finding that states are only devoting an average of 0.9% to “transit and related” projects, defined by Smart Growth America as “projects, funded under the STP (Surface Transportation Program), that are designed to add capacity to, improve the safety of, preserve, facilitate, and are otherwise related to public transportation.” Fourteen states have decided not to provide any funding at all.

For now we have to wait until March 2, 2010, when states must make plans for the remainder of their funds. The hope of Smart Growth America is that the federal government applies more transparency and makes harsher restrictions on where the stimulus money ends up. As a country, we could be at a huge advantage by making strides in new transportation initiatives – but we will have to begin by demanding more of our states.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationjobswashington dcgovernancehighwayssmart growth

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