Obama's stimulus package, one year later: Too much quick fix; too little long-term infrastructureBy Blaire Kamin, 2/18/10
As the Chicago Transit Authority was rebuilding its heavily used Red and Brown Line stations at Fullerton and Belmont Avenues in 2007 and 2008, cash ran short. That forced the canopies over the stations’ platforms to be only about 125 feet long—nowhere near the length needed to protect all the passengers from the elements. Then, last year, the CTA got $1.9 million in stimulus funds to extend the canopies, making them roughly 300 feet long.
Now, rain and snow fall on far fewer riders than before. Passengers are less likely to bunch up under the canopies. Because the riders are evenly distributed, boarding and exiting the trains goes more smoothly. The canopies, made of a translucent plastic supported by steel columns, even upgrade their neighborhoods, gliding airily over the streets—and subtly encouraging more people to use transit.
As shaped by the station’s designers, Ross Barney Architects of Chicago, the canopies offer precisely the kind of benefit that the $787 billion stimulus package is supposed to provide. They’re useful, handsome and, above all, durable. Check back in 25 years and they’re sure to be around. Here’s the trouble for President Barack Obama: So far, they’re an exception to the kind of public works the controversial stimulus package is producing, not the rule.
In a bid to preserve or create much-needed jobs, most of the stimulus spending for infrastructure is pushing short-term fixes, like repaved roads. Such projects have undeniable added value, allowing traffic to flow more smoothly and preventing crater-sized potholes from blowing out tires. Yet the roads will simply have to be repaved a few years down the line. In the long run, whether the stimulus helps bring down unemployment or not, little will have changed.
“Few of the [stimulus] projects are transformative,” said Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.
Not all of them were supposed to be, of course. Given the economic crisis that attended the passage of the stimulus package, tensions were bound to surface between putting people back to work quickly and building a lasting framework of public works. The construction of such a framework was always one of the animating ideas behind the package, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Obama aimed to create public works on a grand scale, embracing traditional infrastructure projects, like fixing roads and bridges, as well as new ones such as extending broadband service to rural communities. The idea was to simultaneously jump-start and reshape the moribund economy, making it greener and more competitive. But the bill the president signed into law a year ago this week departed from this strategic vision in crucial ways.
With congressional Democrats crafting the measure, it funded a grab bag of tax cuts, jobless benefits and other measures. Infrastructure is just one piece of the sprawling piece of legislation and by no means the biggest one. The American Society of Civil Engineers puts the bill’s infrastructure spending at $71.8 billion, or less than one-tenth of the package. And, as a look at Obama’s home state of Illinois reveals, much of the money being spent is simply fixing existing infrastructure rather than building a new framework.
The state’s top recipient of stimulus funds is the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has received more than $845 million, according to the government’s stimulus Web site, www.recovery.gov. Give IDOT that kind of money and it will spread asphalt and concrete like peanut butter. And that’s what the department is doing, hiring contractors by the score to resurface roads from the Wisconsin border to the state’s southern tip.