Our Infrastructure Boondoggles to Nowhere

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President-elect Obama has promised the country a massive economic stimulus in the form of an immense infrastructure building program, “the largest new investment” in the backbone of our country since the construction of the federal highway system in the 1950s.

But before our new President embarks on another colossal federal spending commitment he should take a look at the way our infrastructure programs and priorities have changed for the worst since President Eisenhower championed building the federal highway system in the 1950s (not as an economic stimulus, by the way, but as an essential component of our national defense).

In the ensuing years we’ve rolled much of our infrastructure spending into politically popular but ineffective anti-poverty and “community development” programs. We’ve redefined “infrastructure” to mean everything from senior citizen centers to “historic renovations” of old, unused train stations. In the process we’ve neglected basic, essential investments in roads and bridges, so that even when the feds do ante up new money every few years, much of what the states and cities do with it is fill potholes and pave over neglected roads. As the Washington Post recently observed, this is not exactly “the stuff of history,” not spending that will secure our long-term economic future.

To understand what I mean, take a look at one of the biggest lists of “to do” projects handed to the Obama team. In a report dubbed Ready To Go, the U.S. Conference of Mayors lists thousands of spending proposals totaling a whopping $73 billion. The aim of the report is to answer critics who say that infrastructure spending rarely helps the economy in the short term because it takes so long to get projects off the ground. By contrast, these projects have already passed the planning stage, gotten their approvals and are just awaiting a federal tooth fairy.

But in the process of trying to impress us with this list, the mayors do the opposite. They help demonstrate how we’ve managed to trivialize infrastructure spending. If this is what our municipalities have been devoting their planning energies to, they need to go back to the drawing board.

The first clue that something is seriously awry is the fact that a big chunk of these projects, more than 2,400 of them, have been conceived as part of the Community Development Block Grant program, a repository of ineffective federal spending at best, and patronage and corruption at worst. Conceived during the Nixon years, the CDGB was meant to help urban municipalities rebuild deteriorating neighborhoods. But billions in federal dollars went into places where crime was rising, schools were failing, working people were fleeing, and local officials didn’t have a clue how to address these problems. The new construction did little to offset such powerful forces and the money was largely wasted. To save the heavily criticized program, the feds did the only logical thing: They expanded it to middle and upper income municipalities, thereby quieting criticisms and setting off waves of spending on tennis courts, recreation facilities, cultural centers, historic downtown preservation projects and the like. In the process we also made CDGB one of the biggest homes of Congressional pork.

Looking over the latest list of CDGB projects proposed by our cities, one can’t help call to mind New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comment that massive new federal infrastructure spending could help America become more competitive internationally. Surely when he said that, the mayor wasn’t referring to the several dozen community pools and recreation centers that are on the list handed to Obama by the mayors. Gastonia, North Carolina, for instance, wants $22.4 million for something called Big Splash, which includes an aquatics center (which at least sounds fancier than a pool), a fitness facility (is that a gym?) and “quality meeting space.” Maui in Hawaii, where the temperature is almost always in the 70s, wants $6 million to install solar heating systems in its community pools. Tulsa wants nearly $10 million to renovate three town pools. Jackson, Mississippi, seeks $10 million to construct four ‘natatoriums,’ that is, indoor swimming pools. Dayton, Ohio, wants $13 million to build a complete recreation complex that is “region class,” which means competitive with recreation facilities in the suburbs. Atlanta wants $39 million simply to renovate rec centers throughout the city. The report doesn’t explain why the feds should finance such projects.

When Uncle Sam is your sugar daddy, you can justify spending money on lots of marginal projects of questionable economic value, ranging from cultural centers that can’t support themselves to “heritage” tourism trails to “greenways” (Wikipedia definition: a long, narrow piece of land, often used for recreation and pedestrian and bicycle traffic. ) Orlando needs a mere $245,500 for a Center for Multicultural Wellness & Prevention, which is small change compared to Dallas, looking for $18 million for phase II of a Latino cultural center (the report doesn’t say how much Phase I cost, or whether there needs to be a Phase III). Livermore, California, wants $1.6 million to renovate an historic farm, while Savannah is asking for $3.6 million to refurbish the historic building that houses its tourism information center. Philadelphia is one of more than a dozen cities looking for money for greenways. It wants $5.1 million for a pedestrian bridge to allow its citizens “unobstructed access” to something called the East Coast Greenway trail network. Can’t you just hear the economy humming along once these projects get off the ground?

To be fair, there are also thousands of projects on this list organized under the basic heading of “streets/roads.” Yet taken together they hardly amount to a 21st Century version of the federal highway program. In fact, much of the spending is for repairs and renovations that cities and states have been neglecting—pot hole filling, in other words. Birmingham needs $12 million to install ramps on streets around town which would make the city’s streets comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Anchorage wants $15 million for “rut repair,” while St. Louis wants $4 million to reconfigure an on-ramp on I-55.

If this stuff doesn’t inspire you, too bad. Obama has said states and cities will have to “use it or lose it,” meaning that the federal dollars will flow to places that are ready to spend them. That’s not exactly a blueprint for spending that will matter over time. It is rather a prescription for a gusher of federal dollars that will delight the construction industry and local politicians but produce the same kind of fleeting stimulus as those rebate checks the IRS sent us earlier this year.

Of course, Obama doesn’t need to let all of this spending go forward. He can attempt to do what every president since Ronald Reagan has promised but failed to do, which is to narrow the scope of federal spending in cities and states by more carefully defining what Washington is willing to invest in, with an emphasis on spending that has some long-term purpose beyond recreation or cultural edification. And he can fight to end the Congressional earmarking process that infects these programs. That would be the kind of change that many Obama voters thought they were lining up to support. And it might provide a legacy that was, if not as impressive as the federal highway construction program, at least not as inconsequential as the stuff that’s being proposed to Obama today.

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