US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood at Brookings on Infrastructure
Current project funded by stimulus money in Laurel, Maryland.

Current project funded by stimulus money in Laurel, Maryland.

I just returned from a Brookings Institution event on infrastructure investment, economic growth, and jobs. The talk included a great cast of academics, politicians, transportation officials and journalists. This came just two days after President Obama’s high-profile jobs speech at the same podium. The president (video below) outlined his administration’s plan to divert unused money from Wall Street’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) into an direct jobs program in order to fight double digit unemployment rates. Among other proposals, the administration has thrown its weight behind congressional plans to use $50 billion worth of TARP money for “merit-based” infrastructure projects and a separate plan to capitalize a national infrastructure development bank.

The forum opened today with Bruce Katz, Vice President and Director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. He noted that 88% of the country’s economic activity (GDP) occurs in metro areas and a full two-thirds of GDP occurs in the 100 largest metro areas – located on just 12% of the country’s land mass. This urbanization, Katz explained, makes it imperative that the US invest in the strategic metropolitan infrastructure projects that run the economy and move “people, goods, and ideas efficiently and effectively.”

In that vein, Katz and his colleagues are excited about the Department of Transportation’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) competitive grant program authorized in the original stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). The $1.5 billion will go towards “mode-neutral” merit-based projects based on  pre-determined performance criteria and cost-benefit analysis. Rather than funding specific forms of transportation as the federal government generally does, this program seeks to move the most cost-effective projects forward regardless of transportation type: including highway, transit, rail, port, and non-traditional projects (like DC’s proposed metropolitan-wide 160 station, 1,600 bike bikesharing program). The process is starkly different than the standard congressional logrolling that picks projects based on political ambitions and election year cycles. As another forum participant put it today: ” we’ve run out of money, it’s time to start thinking.”

Similarly, Brookings scholars see a national infrastructure bank as a means to depoliticize the transportation funding process and funnel much-needed money to nationally significant projects. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn) gave the opening remarks at the event and noted congress’ intent to capitalize a $250 billion wholly owned government corporation for just such a task. Congress will take up the complex issue in the “regular authorization process.”

The last stimulus bill is a good example of current congressional priorities: Of the $46 billion in transportation dollars appropriated in the stimulus bill, just $1.5 billion was set aside for TIGER. $30 billion will go for highway construction. The remainder will go towards high speed rail and transit systems.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke at the end of the forum today expressing his strong belief that the $46 billion in transportation dollars appropriated in the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) are creating jobs and funding worthy projects. It was interesting that he spent a disproportionate about of the speech highlighting the TIGER grant program and the administration’s high speed rail ambitions even though they make up just 20% of the original transportation stimulus. Both of these programs had about $60 billion worth of requests each. TIGER projects are currently funded at 2.5% of requested levels. High speed rail proposals, which are far less cost-effective, are funded at 13% of request levels. Hopefully congress’ forthcoming plan for the unused TARP money will correct this disparity.

As I exited the building and passed two idling Flex-Fuel Chevrolet Suburbans waiting for LaHood and his entourage, I was struck by the enormity of the task before the administration. Not only do they have to reverse the country’s dire economic situation, they have a once-in-fifty-year chance to fundamentally reform the nation’s infrastructure investments towards economically rational, more environmentally sustainable outcomes.

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