Thursday, December 25, 2008

RAIL TAKES BACK SEAT IN OBAMA STIMULUS PLAN

Bloomberg - Missouri's plan to spend $750 million in federal money on highways and nothing on mass transit in St. Louis doesn't square with President-elect Barack Obama's vision for a revolutionary re-engineering of the nation's infrastructure. Utah would pour 87 percent of the funds it may receive in a new economic stimulus bill into new road capacity. Arizona would spend $869 million of its $1.2 billion wish list on highways.

While many states are keeping their project lists secret, plans that have surfaced show why environmentalists and some development experts say much of the stimulus spending may promote urban sprawl while scrimping on more green-friendly rail and mass transit.

"It's a lot of more of the same," said Robert Puentes, a metropolitan growth and development expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington who is tracking the legislation. "You build a lot of new highways, continue to decentralize" urban and suburban communities and "pull resources away from transit.". . .

Members of Congress and some officials with the incoming administration are moving toward legislation that gives states funds through existing formulas that provide little oversight to ensure the spending fits into a broader plan to modernize the nation's infrastructure grid and promote energy efficiency, according to several lobbyists and congressional aides. . .

"The fear is that you would begin a bunch of bad projects that would have to be funded all the way," said Petra Todorovich, director of the New York-based America 2050, a coalition of transportation officials and civic, business and environmental groups. That would make it "a lot harder to make the big investments needed to build high-speed rail and public transit.". . .

Polly Trottenberg, director of Building America's Future, a Washington-based group promoting innovation in infrastructure improvements, counters that "there are plenty of projects that can put Americans back to work immediately and also start the transformation that is needed." Her organization and other groups have pinpointed $16.5 billion in mass-transit projects on which work can start within a year, and in many cases within four months.

In Europe and Southeast Asia, governments are investing tens of billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects that include systems designed for the rapid transport of merchandise. Proponents of a new approach to transportation in the U.S. are pushing for the stimulus package to fund similar projects.

They also are backing a provision in the stimulus legislation that would require states to spend funds on maintenance before building new roads. And they also want to direct funds to metropolitan planning authorities and to create a national oversight group to help coordinate the spending.