Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Public Works Infrastructure and Recessionary Finance

The Depression-era WPA building program left many iconic and enduring projects in place , even while putting people to work during the job-starved 1930s. Landmarks and structures such as public buildings, post offices, major bridges, dams, zoos and many others went up in a relatively brief period, and are still utilized and enjoyed by tens of millions today.

President Barack Obama’s multi-billion dollar federal stimulus package has not yet proposed a similar visionary program, instead focusing on “shovel-ready” projects, which typically translate into short-term fixes such as road repaving projects. This is even though taxpayers would be getting as much as 30% more for their money due to the favorable bidding environment (compared to pre-recessionary times).

Of course the type of planning needed requires a long-term vision which, in the arena of national politics and partisan bickering, is not necessarily the expedient route. Some cities such as San Diego have recognized this and are focusing on longer horizon projects entailing major transit/highway expansion or rehabilitation, with life spans of 50-year or longer. Schenectady, New York Mayor Brian Stratton, echoing the position of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has been pushing a re-creation of the FDR-era WPA program, though his focus has been on funneling federal stimulus funds directly to local governments.

Despite the difference in these emergent approaches, there seems to be a general recognition that the first round of stimulus funding was not very effective. Aligning the true needs of our nation’s infrastructure to the Obama Administration’s vision for creating jobs seems the greatest challenge to overcome.

In our mind, the real question is this: if we’re spending money we don’t have anyways, why not spend it on projects with long-term value? And on a “touchier” note, at what level of government is “value” determined, when it comes to apportionment of federal tax dollars? Is it time to appoint a new “infrastructure czar” to work the interstices of federal/local politics, perhaps backed up by a nationwide cabinet of transit and public works officials? This panel could be given the authority needed to short-circuit the evaluation of projects, as well as to distribute stimulus funds, cutting through the red tape now hampering the process. This would be for the greater good of our nation in the short term, as well as our long-term economic prospects.

My fingers are limber. Who do we email??

As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated!


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