Does shovel-ready mean ready for burying?

These infrastructure projects are usually on the back burner because they ought to be there.
These infrastructure projects are usually on the back burner because they ought to be there.

As Congress and President-elect Obama press ahead with an $825 billion economic stimulus package, every industry and interest group under the sun is trying to figure out a way to get a piece of the pie. And why not? It isn't often that the federal government steps up to dole out cash in this kind of way, and there are certainly plenty of worthy ways to spend the money.

There's still a lot of haggling to come, but much of the total will go to tax cuts, and to shoring up education funding, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits. The infrastructure spending in the House version of the bill comes to around $100 billion, and while there are any number of ways that money could potentially be spent, one basic principle is pretty clear: it's going to be distributed in a way that maximizes short-term job creation. That means projects that are shovel-ready and have already gone through all the design and permitting and environmental review processes. And that in turn will effectively steer a lot of the dollars to road construction projects that state and local governments already have sitting on the shelf.

The logic in this approach is clear enough: the stimulus program is primarily a job-creation effort, and starting work on a new bridge or highway project puts people on the payroll right away. Engineering and construction contractors rightly see this as a lifeline that will save them from total devastation at a time when new private-sector construction projects have all but disappeared.

Yet it's hard not to lament the lost opportunities here. While some of the bridge and road projects are important, others are on the back-burner because they deserve to be there. Meanwhile, forward-thinking programs that could have a major long-term impact on the shape of our communities — things like rail transit, conservation and restoration, and urban redevelopment — will be left aside. In Missoula, for example, we might get a new bridge over the Bitterroot, even though the reconstruction of the Russell Street corridor would be far more beneficial overall.

As it's shaping up now, the infrastructure piece of the federal stimulus package will mainly pump more money through state transportation agencies and fund projects that in many cases were conceived years ago (they have to be shovel-ready, remember). That means reinforcing old patterns of development rather than encouraging new ones.

It's certainly true that a thorough and thoughtful approach to how best to spend the federal money would dictate that it be spent more slowly, which in turn would undermine the primary aim of the program (job-creation). On the other hand, there's a risk that we'll end up with bridges to nowhere, which might create some construction jobs for a couple of years but will do little for the underlying economic vitality of our communities, and in fact could work against it.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors