Obama's Stimulus Projects Won't Amount to Major Infrastructure Overhaul

The need for speed on highway projects is sacrificing size and scope.

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Describing the $787 billion stimulus package, President Obama evokes the 1950s construction of the interstate system, conjuring images of highways, bridges, and orange cones. "Throughout our history, there have been times when a generation of Americans seized the chance to remake the face of this nation," he said last month. "And that's what we're doing today: building a 21st-century infrastructure."

But as projects are chosen, it's becoming clear that the program may amount to little more than an infrastructure face-lift. Owing to the need for speed and to institutional obstacles, most stimulus transportation projects are small and localized. "Here and there, people will notice things," says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation. He cites repaired potholes and new streetlights. "But I don't think the country as a whole will say, 'Wow, transportation is so much better,' " Poole says.

This stems from the law's main purpose: creating jobs quickly. It prioritizes projects that will be completed within three years. Major highway construction typically takes 13 years from start to finish, reports the Federal Highway Administration.

So more than three quarters of the approved highway projects' funds will go to repaving and widening roads, while less than 6 percent will pay for new construction, according to the investigative nonprofit ProPublica. Other reports show that smaller, rural projects, like bridges, often receive funding priority over those that might get more traffic, largely because they can be launched more quickly.

That doesn't necessarily make the spending ineffective. One quarter of major urban roads, for example, are in poor condition and would benefit from repairs. But it does mean that few projects will have sweeping effects.

One project that experts say could be "transformational" is limited by a lack of funding. High-speed rail, which Obama says could benefit 10 major corridors between cities around the country, was slated for $8 billion in the stimulus, and Obama has asked Congress for $5 billion more over five years. But the Government Accountability Office estimates that constructing high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco alone will cost about $33 billion. Similarly, while the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that the nation's highways and bridges need an annual investment of $166 billion through 2015, the stimulus package has only $27.5 billion. Overall, the law allots $48.1 billion to the Department of Transportation, or just 6 percent of total stimulus funds.

An even bigger problem, experts say, is how that funding is doled out. Decisions are often politicized and are rarely coordinated between levels of government. Transportation dollars are traditionally spread thinly, "like peanut butter," says Robert Puentes, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's metropolitan policy program. "We don't do cost-benefit analysis in this country." That is a systemic problem, unrelated to the stimulus. But it could be addressed in the next big infrastructure battle. The so-called highway bill, which maps out funding for the country's roads, bridges, and transit over the next five years, is due to be reauthorized this fall. America may not have a clear vision for its transportation system, but infrastructure advocates, not to mention Americans who have ever sat in stalled traffic or bumped over a pothole, hope that will change.