James Oberstar, the Democrat from Minnesota who chairs the House Transportation Committee, has been sending out cranky letters to governors around the country who haven’t been spending their economic stimulus money fast enough on highway projects. Massachusetts and Virginia, which ranked 48th and 51st among the states, got letters last month. These states had done a poor job thus far to meet the purpose of the $787 billion stimulus package, which was to “create and sustain family-wage jobs,” he wrote.
Gov. Deval Patrick wrote back, arguing that Massachusetts was identifying projects that could have a short-term stimulus effect as well as a long-term economic impact. Virginia. Gov. Tim Kaine took a different approach, noting that Virginia didn’t have a wish list of shovel-ready projects that the stimulus would make actionable. New projects had to be identified through a public comment period, he said. Another state at the bottom of Oberstar’s list, Florida, reminded the Congressman that the money had to be funneled through counties and cities, all of which have their own regulations to comply with before a project can go forward.
If the idea of economic stimulus is to put people back to work and infuse the economy with cash as quickly as possible, then Oberstar is right—these states need to pick up the pace. And President Obama is surely mindful of Oberstar’s criticism as he watches the national unemployment rate approach 10 percent.
But isn’t the Massachusetts governor right not to spend the money willy-nilly on projects that don’t necessarily have any sustaining impact on the economy? Why not use a share of the stimulus to promote projects that will make a sea change in how we live and work, such as large transit-oriented developments and green energy infrastructure? If these investments take a little longer to arrange, isn’t that an acceptable cost for retooling an economy that is fundamentally unsound?
Long-term thinking is so very hard. Even as I think absolutely we shouldn’t be spending money on sprawl-inducing make work that will just leave us farther in the hole, I can hear my unemployed, running-out-of-unemployment-checks friends and acquaintances fretting in the back of my mind. Is there anyway to devote some resources to fast tracking the more complicated/better projects? (I guess, sadly, that would require agreement on what those projects are, which may seem obvious to those working on them, but not to everyone.)