The Wall Street Journal

Stimulus Shouldn't Be an Excuse for Pork

The nation's mayors have presented a revealing wish list to Washington

Dictionary.com defines infrastructure as "the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area." The nation's mayors define it a bit differently.

On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors went to Capitol Hill to ask for a handout, or as they put it: "We are reporting that in 427 cities of all sizes in all regions of the country, a total of 11,391 infrastructure projects are 'ready to go.' These projects represent an infrastructure investment of $73,163,299,303 that would be capable of producing an estimated 847,641 jobs in 2009 and 2010."

A wish list that is 11,391 projects strong! What vital infrastructure projects would cash-strapped taxpayers get for their $73 billion? Here's a sampling:

  • Hercules, Calif., wants $2.5 million in hard-earned taxpayer money for a "Waterfront Duck Pond Park," and another $200,000 for a dog park.
  • Euless, Texas, wants $15 million for the Midway Park Family Life Center, which, you'll be glad to note, includes both a senior center and aquatic facility.
  • Natchez, Miss., "needs" a new $9.5 million sports complex "which would allow our city to host major regional and national sports tournaments."
  • Henderson, Nev., is asking for $20 million to help "develop a 60 acre multi-use sports field complex."
  • Brigham City, Utah, wants $15 million for a sports park.
  • Arlington, Texas, needs $4 million to expand its tennis center.
  • Miami, Fla., needs $15 million for a "Moore Park Community Center, Tennis Center and Day Care" facility. The city is also desperate for $3.6 million to build a covered basketball court and a new tennis court at Robert King High Park. Then there's the $94 million Orange Bowl parking garage you are being asked to pay for.
  • La Porte, Texas, wants $7.6 million for a "Life Style Center." And Oakland, Calif., needs $1 million for Fruitvale Latino Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

And you thought infrastructure investment meant roads, bridges and schools. It is clear that any infrastructure stimulus money given to the country's mayors will lead to thousands of tennis centers to nowhere. News alert for mayors: We are officially in a recession. American families have to get by with less, and so do American cities.

The country does indeed need to invest in critical infrastructure. We have a backlog of deferred maintenance on both highways and bridges. According to Reason Foundation's Annual Highway Report, 24% of U.S. bridges were reported structurally deficient or functionally obsolete in 2006. At the current rate of repair it will take 62 years for those bridges to be brought up to date. But it won't take six decades to fix them because the government doesn't have the money; it will take that long because our political leaders don't prioritize. Too often they choose ribbon-cutting ceremonies at sports complexes over repairing bridges.

The current centralized process of parceling out infrastructure and gas-tax money does not invest resources wisely, and "stimulus" handouts would be even more wasteful. Consider how the Los Angeles area is spending its transportation money. A 2006 study by University of North Carolina at Charlotte Prof. David Hartgen found that in Los Angeles less than 5% of the area's workers use public transit to commute, yet over 50% (nearly $67 billion) of the area's long-range plan (to the year 2030) money will be spent on transit projects. Planners admit the cash going towards those transit projects won't significantly increase transit's share of commuters, which means over half the spending won't do anything to reduce the region's infamous traffic jams, which drain the economy and hurt businesses.

Hartgen's study showed we could eliminate severe congestion in all of the nation's urban areas for $21 billion a year -- less than we are spending on transportation today, and $52 billion less than the mayors just asked for. And by investing in the right projects we'd save 7.7 billion hours each year.

Reducing traffic congestion, which costs Americans well over $63 billion a year in wasted time and fuel, should be a primary criterion for any transportation project that is funded. Our economy depends on it.

Today, over 80% of all goods (by value) in this country are shipped by truck. Time is money. A national network of truck-only toll lanes would enable truckers to carry more goods, faster. In our 21st century economy, spurred by companies like Amazon.com, Apple and FedEx, truck lanes would do more for the economy than any cultural or aquatic center. And, perhaps most notably, taxpayers wouldn't have to foot the bill alone. The private sector would pay to build the truck lanes in many major urban areas, recouping their money by charging tolls.

There is good evidence that well-targeted additions of capacity to congested urban freeway systems and truck-heavy interstate corridors would not merely have benefits greater than costs but could achieve commercial rates of return.

Right now the stock market is experiencing a flight to quality, as investors look for the best-run, most stable companies. Involving the private sector in infrastructure funding would induce a similar shift in our transportation investments.

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters says there is over $400 billion in private capital available for high-priority U.S. infrastructure projects. That sum, if properly spent on the most-needed transportation projects, would transform our roads, transit systems and airports into a 21st century transportation network that would unleash the economy.

We can be sure the private sector won't pay for everything on the mayors' Christmas lists though. Since neither a massive subway system nor high-speed train system even exist in Northern California, investors will probably pass on the $200 million high-speed train station that San Francisco hails as "the Grand Central Station of the West Coast" in its ready-to-go list.

It was very nice of the country's mayors to hand taxpayers a wish list worth $73 billion. But before taxpayers give them a dime, let's see the mayors rank those 11,391 goodies -- I mean "infrastructure" projects -- based on effectiveness and potential return on investment for taxpayers.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy





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