Federal stimulus spending could take us down the wrong road

We should not use this money to build Oil Age infrastructure, compounding our energy problems. Yet the state, like many others, is doing just that.
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Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour.

We should not use this money to build Oil Age infrastructure, compounding our energy problems. Yet the state, like many others, is doing just that.

Most economists agree that spending stimulates the economy. But that'ꀙs not the same as thinking that any stimulus spending is a good idea. Clearly that'ꀙs not the case. It is possible to spend ourselves into an even worse pickle than we'ꀙre already in.

Most people would agree that spending stimulus dollars to create poppy plantations to support the domestic heroin trade would be unwise, no matter how many jobs it created. And yet, a significant portion of federal stimulus spending is slated to support a different kind of hazardous addiction: our addiction to oil. For instance, Texans are planning to use some of their stimulus money to build a new 15-mile, 4-lane toll road beyond Houston'ꀙs suburbs, paving over a rare native prairie in the process.

Planners there don'ꀙt worry about the risk of creating more car-dependent sprawl. In fact, that'ꀙs precisely the point of the project: to build a new 'ꀜmaster planned'ꀝ community of 21,000 houses on more than 11,000 acres. At an average density of roughly one house per half-acre, and located on the fringe of the Houston orbit, the project could scarcely be better designed to lock locals into a car-dependent lifestyle built on long-distance commutes for work and errands.

Texas'ꀙ stimulus spending is the opposite of what Northwest policymakers profess: energy efficiency, growth management, and combating climate change. But in a surprise move in early March, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a package of spending commitments for the state'ꀙs federal stimulus dollars for transportation. Among the roughly $340 million in spending was about $81 million for freeway-widening projects.

Of that money, $71 million will be used to add general-purpose lanes along I-405 near Bothell and on I-82 in Yakima. Neither of these areas currently has high accident rates nor do the expansions have obvious safety implications. More puzzling still, both projects were already funded by state gas tax money. Strictly speaking these freeway expansion projects should have been ineligible for stimulus money, which is intended only for new projects. Additionally, the package set aside $10 million for general-capacity expansion near Ridgefield, north of Vancouver, Washington.

Adding single-occupancy and general-capacity lanes is inimical to reduction of vehicle miles traveled, growth management, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You don't need a fancy traffic model to guess that adding freeway lanes will increase climate emissions and deepen our dependence on fossil fuels — while providing no more convenience or transportation choices to local residents.

Using stimulus money to add lanes is irresponsible from a fiscal perspective as well. Even in rosier economic times, states struggle to keep up with maintenance backlogs. Why spend stimulus money on road expansion which increases ongoing operational and maintenance costs and leaves the backlog to grow?

The problem of road-heavy stimulus spending appears widespread. The stimulus spending will almost certainly create jobs in the near term and boost consumer spending, precisely what it is intended to do. The real danger is that this kind of spending will land us in a worse long-term position because we will have effectively walled off the escape routes from a serious energy-addiction problem. Our energy problems are also closely linked to the defining challenge of our time: reducing global warming emissions before climate change creates too much havoc. We should not use stimulus money to build Oil Age infrastructure. It'ꀙs 2009 not 1909.

The economist John Maynard Keynes noted wryly that simply burying bottles full of money and letting private enterprise pay a workforce to dig them up would stimulate the economy. Odd as it sounds, Keynes' proposal might be good deal smarter than spending our money to tighten our economy'ꀙs bonds to climate-changing emissions and to the roller coaster of fossil fuel prices.


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