Why Stimulus Money Should Go to Cities, Not States

I spoke earlier today to David Burwell, a co-founder of the Surface Transportation Policy Project who is currently a strategic consultant with the Transportation for America campaign, about how the stimulus package is shaping up for transportation projects, why it might go wrong, and what can be done to set it on the right track.

"He's putting his reputation and his brand in the hands of a bunch of state DOTs who don't care very much about the Obama brand."
The main risk, he said, is that stimulus spending might get funneled entirely to the states, which have billions in highway expansion projects in the pipeline (for a taste, check out Friends of the Earth's Road to Nowhere campaign). The congressional leadership has not signaled that it will set aside -- or "sub-allocate" -- funds specifically for cities and metropolitan planning organizations. Neither has Obama's transportation transition team, which met last month with T4A leaders and other environmental advocates.

Here's what Burwell had to say, in a nutshell, about the stimulus package. Stay tuned for more from the interview.

The transportation team realizes that the infrastructure piece is a problem and wants to address it, but they see it as a long-term issue, not a short-term one. The problem is, you can't spend this amount of money without affecting the re-authorization.

The transportation stimulus could be a bunch of bridges to nowhere. Obama's environmental team is looking not at the transportation infrastructure piece, they're looking at all the rest of it. They're saying, "Well, it's green. This really is a green stimulus package." And they're probably right, but the transportation piece is not green, it's gray-to-black.

This is HR 1. This is going to be the first bill Obama signs -- high visibility -- and if it has a bunch of roads to nowhere and bridges to nowhere, those things are actually going to be under construction within two years when the midterm elections are coming up. This is a threat to the Obama brand -- the idea that this is a new administration, we're going to do things differently, we're going in a new direction, we're done with the old way of doing business. Yet he's pouring all this money into the old way of doing business in transportation.

They don't understand the fact that they can't just say, "We want green infrastructure," and get green infrastructure. There's a provision of Title 23 of the United States Code, which governs highway spending, that says no matter what the feds say, the states have a sovereign right to pick their own projects. That's section 145. It says, regardless of what the feds say, "the authorization for appropriation of Federal funds... shall in no way infringe on the sovereign rights of States to determine which projects shall be federally financed." So he doesn't control the selection process once that money hits the state books. The feds have very little ability to influence it. He's putting his reputation and his brand in the hands of a bunch of state DOTs who don't care very much about the Obama brand. That's a big threat.

The best defense on how these moneys are going to be spent is to sub-allocate it, because it's the cities that build the bike paths, it's the cities that build the transit systems, it's the cities that run the bus lines, it's the cities that run the rail stations. If you want this money spent on new green infrastructure, get it to the cities. It's the states that run the highway system. If you give all the money to the states, you know exactly what they're going to spend the money on. I'd rather have Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg decide how to spend this money than the division administrator of the state DOT.