Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Next Big Thing?

I graduate from the University of Pennsylvania this year with my Masters in City and Regional Planning, and I have been networking furiously for the past few months, searching for employment in a pathetic job market. Most people encourage me to wait. They say, “wait for the Stimulus Package,” assuring me that this anticipated federal funding will create lots of work for people interested in the fields of land use, transportation, development, and policy.

Many have unrealistic expectations for the Stimulus Package. It does represent a critical opportunity for the nation to rebuild its infrastructure, but as many have noted, it also appears to be geared toward bridge and highway spending, and not the multi modal approach advocated by the planeratti.

There are quite a few reasons for this highway bias in the spending package. Our nation’s highway infrastructure is underperforming almost as badly as our transit infrastructure. Our states legislatures are controlled by rural counties who rely more on highways. And of course, as Americans, we are naturally biased towards the car. But perhaps the most important (and worst) reason these funds are being spent on highways and bridges is the propensity to latch on to the simplest iteration of an idea or concept, and assume that by promoting that “next best thing” we can solve all our problems.

A digressive case in point: Transit Oriented Development. Private developers and community developers across the country are building near rail lines and calling their projects Transit Oriented Developments. The projects are often funded with public dollars because the proposals convince government that they will cure urban sprawl and do all sorts of miraculous things. Forget for a moment that many of these projects have tons of parking and do little to actually promote transit. Real TOD has less to do with any individual project, but rather should be understood as the systematic approach a municipality takes in rewriting its zoning code to promote denser development around train stations, and spending streetscaping dollars around those stations to build a sense of place. TOD is by no means a quick fix; it is nothing short than a philosophical change in how we build and live. However, projects often drape themselves in its mantle in hopes that its critically acclaimed status rubs off on them.

These projects lined up for Stimulus Package funding are often projects that have been lying on desk, or in drawers, for a few years: plans drawn up simply awaiting a jackpot funding stream. Because our infrastructure is already so far behind where it needs to be (the entire nation’s infrastructure was given an overall grade of “D” in 2005 by the American Society for Civil Engineers) there is a backlog of projects that could use the money. There is an unstated assumption that by simply pouring money into building and repairing roads and bridges, that jobs will be created and our national infrastructure will be saved (not to mention the recession will be over).

There are several problems with this line of thinking; no one is asking what kind of jobs these projects will actually create, or how sustainable these jobs will be. We are creating jobs for several thousands of planners, engineers, and constructions workers, but how long will these jobs last, and what else could we invest in that would create more jobs? If the goal is to create jobs and jumpstart an economy, do we want to get ahead of the curve and invest in emerging sectors like bio-tech, or perhaps invest in public education.

However if we want to invest in transit we need to think about the future. We should not play catch up with old projects; instead we need to prioritize projects that will have the greatest impact in strengthening the economies of large metropolitan areas. These projects include high speed inter-city trains, additional freight capacity, intra-city transit system improvement, and yes even TOD projects. However, in order for this to happen several changes need to happen in how we distribute federal dollars. The reason pork-barrel projects exist is that we have no over-arching transportation spending plan. The very nature of DOT funding encourages a cycle of constituents pressuring congressmen for earmarks if they want anything done in their district. The National Association of City Transportation Officials provides a thorough review of the structural changes that are necessary to reform transportation funding for all modes [pdf]

Ultimately, I am worried that the funding promised in this much-anticipated Stimulus Package will be wasted. Without a defined set of criteria that would guide investment, with out appropriate procedures to make sure that the money is spent wisely, and with only a nebulous goal (jumpstart the economy) few of these investments will have long-term benefits.

1 comment:

William said...

I tend to think that America faces short and long term problems. For the short term, it's important to jump-start the economy. I suppose it follows that job creation would achieve this goal. If our national infrastructure really is that bad, then why is it a bad thing to create jobs rebuilding it? Although there is no discussion about the long-term sustainability of these jobs, is it not important merely to create jobs right now? Both educated and uneducated Americans are out of work. It seems that a short-term program to rebuild our national infrastructure (and in doing so, I hope that we greatly improve mass transit, as I think ignoring mass transit would be a mistake) would create thousands of jobs for Americans - education and uneducated - that (I expect) would provide decent pay.

In the long-term, it's important to catch-up to the curve by creating bio-tech jobs, becoming more sustainable, and drastically improving education. I am not so sure the long-term issues can tackled before addressing some of the immediate problems.

As far as strengthening the economies of large metropolitian areas - I wonder if such large areas can overcome the affects of politics. I recently read an article that pointed out that there was hardly mention of an urban agenda during the presidential election. This seems true, right? What concerns me about this is that more and more Americans may identify themselves with "small town" America, regardless of whether the small town is actually a suburb of a large city or regardless of whether the people who identify with this characteristic work (or play) in large cities. I think its fair to say that most "suburbanites" and those who live beyond the city do not understand the complexities of a large city, nor do they see their well-being tied to the success of large cities in any way. I believe that these people are very wrong about their relationship to cities (maybe more properly - regions). But, I am skeptical that massive urban infrastructure improves, which are greatly needed to prepare ourselves for a successful future in the global economy, can be accomplished without a fundamental change in the way most people think about cities and their relationship to cities.