Wednesday, December 17

Stimulus: Speed vs. Quality

Obama's stimulus package may be in the conceptual stages right now, but it's already stimulating quite a bit of debate. This is a good thing, because hundreds of billions of dollars pumped into our national infrastructure has the potential to shape the way we live for decades to come. We know there is at least a small window of time for the public to weigh in.

If it's possible to lump the viewpoints I've seen into two sides, I would break it down as such: the speed group wants to get money flowing through the economy as quickly as possible, and the quality group wants to be more cautious about which projects the money is spent on. This is not to say the speed group does not care at all about quality, or the quality group has no time schedule. Of course, both sides will say they are concerned with both speed and quality ("two sides of the same coin"), but reading between the lines reveals the crucial detail of where they place the relative importance.

The speed group sets economic revitalization as its number one priority. Just as Congress rushed to get the economic stimulus check to every household last spring and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson argued this fall that a bailout of the financial sector was critically urgent, this view sets the same standard of quickness for any transportation stimulus package. There's no time for complicated innovations; we must stick with the "mechanisms in place" to surge the ailing economy with a cash defibrillator.

Not surprisingly, many of the transportation projects sitting on the waiting lists of State DOTs happen to be extensions of the status quo - highway lane additions, new arterial roadways, etc. From a planning and construction perspective, if this is what we know best this is what we can produce most quickly. There are also extensive networks of special interest lobby groups and quid pro quo agreements between various governmental bodies that would ensure that road-building projects are the most "shovel-ready."

The quality group would rather take the time to judge whether each project is in the best long-term interest of the country. There seems to be two different motivations behind the members of this group. Conservatives, already squeamish about unprecedented amounts of government spending, are urging caution. The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece (tip from Richard Layman):

"It's important that the elected officials view public works investment not as a short-term stimulus for stimulus' stake, or a vehicle for politically driven job creation. The goal should be to create the best and broadest necessary and permanent infrastructure for the most responsible minimal price needed to build it. Being careful here is necessary because this is borrowed, finite money; it could become prohibitively expensive for the feds to borrow as debt levels skyrocket. Spending is not investing."
David Brooks essentially said the same thing last week.

On the other hand, environmentalists are also very nervous about the implications of quickly-built roads being strewn about metropolitan landscapes. Richard Coniff of the Yale Environment 360 wrote today,
"But so far, when it comes to [Obama's] economic stimulus package, the rush to get quick results seems to be pushing the environment to the background and sending the process down a familiar path, as lobbyists and contractors jostle for handouts in another round of what one commentator recently dubbed "K Street Capitalism.""
Friends of the Earth, an umbrella group of environmentalists, just kicked off a "new roads = new pollution: keep the economic stimulus clean" campaign with the goal of imploring the President-elect to steer clear of new roads altogether.

It's interesting for me to see these coalitions - not necessarily consistent with traditional ideological dichotomies - develop in response to such a critical question.

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