Why The Next Stimulus Bill May Not Transform Transportation Either

We’ve begun hearing rumors of a potential follow-up stimulus bill that will inject additional billions into infrastructure spending.  But if state officials use the same narrow definition of “shovel ready” to select projects for funding for the new bill that they did for the old one, we’ll be stuck with another set of  old car-centric highway plans that don’t incorporate today’s “complete streets” approach.

To its credit, Massachusetts was one of only six states to spend more than 10% of their federal stimulus funds on non-car projects. But the reality is that stimulus funds are intended to provide a quick stimulus – to be spent quickly and have an immediate impact. On the other hand, road projects take a very long time to plan, design, and get approved.

The typical road building project is conceived and partially designed and then is forced to be put on hold for years, sometimes for decades, until political developments create an opportunity to secure funding. These designs – whether for repair or upgrading of existing roads, or for new projects – incorporate the traffic engineering practices and values of their birth period: which, until very recently, reflected the car-centric culture that shaped the US transportation system for the past fifty years or so.

In the past few years, Massachusetts has officially adopted a much more flexible approach to road design, endorsing “complete streets” and “traffic calming” and supposedly giving much greater attention to the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists –although some engineers working for state and municipal agencies still act as if they are still operating under the old regulations, or interpret the new guidelines in the narrowest ways possible.

An even bigger problem is that all those old road plans are still sitting on shelves, many of them having had some kind of (usually minimal) public review in prior years. And there is no requirement that they be reviewed and upgraded to incorporate the new vision before being used.

So when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds started flowing soon after the Obama Administration took office, and state transportation officials had to quickly find “shovel ready” projects that could be started within a few months, what was available for immediate use were those waiting-in-the-shelf traditional road projects — which are exactly the type of thing that traditionally-minded traffic engineers want to build anyway, so they weren’t likely to object..

The bottom line is that unless the newly restructured state Department of Transportation starts requiring that all designs over two years old get reviewed and upgraded now – before the next stimulus package arrives – there will be the same rush to construction of the same kind of backward-looking plans that we’ve already had to endure. Now is the time to demand that no more money be spent on road projects that don’t prioritize “active transportation” – walking and cycling.

This is not just a Massachusetts problem. Because of the state flexibility built into the final bill as a requirement for Congressional passage, about one-third of the federal stimulus money – $6.6 billion – was used for new road capacity projects rather than repair. And, according to a report from Smart Growth America (www.smargrowthamerica.org), “At a time when public transportation ridership is hitting all-time highs and the budget crunch is causing transit agencies to cut routes, service and jobs, an abysmal 0.9% was spent on public transportation. Only 2.8% percent was spent on non-motorized projects (i.e., bike and pedestrian projects).”

Still, there is no reason to join the bad parade. We have some breathing room before the next stimulus bill could possibly arrive. And even if it doesn’t, now is the time to make sure that all those old plans sitting on dusty shelves are revised to reflect Massachusetts’s values.

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