Caution: Work projects ahead
The government is set to spend hundreds of billions on energy, roads, railways and community development projects. Here's how to get stuff we actually want.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- In just over a month, hundreds of billions of dollars of your money could be funneling through the hands of every politician, from the president to the mayor of the smallest American town, in a plan to jumpstart the economy.
Much of the money will be spent on tax cuts and aid to cash-strapped states. But a big chunk, perhaps $150 billion or more, will be devoted to infrastructure projects - things like roads, bridges, water lines and energy efficiency.
For maximum effect, experts say the cash should be doled out quickly. The plan could be approved just days after President-elect Obama takes office. Done right, it could create millions of jobs and lubricate the economy. Done wrong, it presents innumerable opportunities for waste and fraud.
"It's the closest thing we have to a blank check," said Robert Puentes, a fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Project, speaking about how federal transportation money is doled out. Puentes said there's no solid system to account for where this money goes: "It's a fact-free zone."
Transportation projects will likely make up the biggest part of the plan, and the government should spend most of its money repairing and maintaining existing roads and bridges rather than undertaking bold new projects right away, said Puentes.
The are a few reasons for this.
First, any stimulus plan needs to be fast-acting, one to three months as opposed to 12 to 18 months, in order to have the desired effect - creating jobs.
There is talk of creating an overarching agency to guide all this new infrastructure investment, like an infrastructure bank, but it can't be set up in time to manage the first batch of stimulus money. These funds will have to be doled out through existing channels, either to regional, state, metropolitan or city agencies.
But many of these agencies still operate with a 1950s mindset of building more and bigger roads, said Puentes. For example, much federal road funding is still appropriated based on miles driven, not population, essentially encouraging states to build projects that make people drive more.
"We should only spend quickly on the existing system," said Puentes. "We shouldn't use this as an opportunity to build more projects on the fringe" of cities.
These agencies need to be reformed before they can be trusted with undertaking new projects in a world now concerned with pollution and energy efficiency, he said. Puentes also said some money should also be set aside for mass transit systems.
Another reason why the transportation programs should be focused on existing facilities is that it eliminates the temptation to spend on pork.
There are many big highway or rail projects that some people have been pushing for decades but, for one reason or another, have yet to get funding, said Emil Frankel, former head of the Connecticut Department of Transportation and now the director of transportation policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
"A lot of people are going to say 'ah-ha, we've been waiting for this,'" said Frankel. "Those are the things that should be avoided."
Nearly everyone calling for more government spending is also calling for better accountability of where this money goes. Ideas include posting specific projects online, their status, how much they cost, and how many people they employ.
"Whoever the grantees are, they need to be accountable," said Frankel.
Just because money from the initial stimulus should be spent on existing projects doesn't mean the nation should ignore longer term transportation goals - things like building more mass transit lines, bus networks, or dedicated highways for freight.
Obama has stressed that this stimulus plan should also lay the groundwork for a more coherent national vision going forward that focuses on efficient transportation.
Still, some think he is giving this long-term view short shrift.
"When it comes to infrastructure, Obama talks roads and bridges - he really doesn't think in broader terms" said Robert Cervero, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California Berkeley. "He needs to start [talking about] high-speed rail, light rail, and buses."
There are plenty of major rail, bus and other rapid transit projects that have all their permits and are ready to be built, said Cervero.
"Anything that's going to help ensure energy efficiency should be fast-tracked," he said.
A survey put out by the United States Conference of Mayors identified 10 areas where local officials could spend money.
The study said the mayors could put $73 billion to work in short order, creating nearly 1 million jobs.
Of that $73 billion, $29 billion would go towards transit projects including trains and airports, while $15 billion could be used to upgrade water and sewer systems, $12 billion could be spent revitalizing downtowns, and $6 billion could be used to make buildings energy efficient.
Energy, both efficiency and using more renewable sources, had been a big part of Obama's campaign and has figured prominently in the stimulus talks.
Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Senators Wednesday that up to $120 billion should be spent on energy-related projects in the next two years, including things like upgrading the nation's transmission lines and switching to "smart" electricity meters that could produce big gains in efficiency.
But most of the energy initiatives that could be done within the next 90 days will likely focus on traditional conservation measures - things like insulating attics, replacing drafty windows, installing energy efficient lighting and appliances.
Even so, the Alliance to Save Energy, a conservation group, estimates $18 billion could be spent on these efforts fairly quickly - which would employ lots of out-of-work construction workers.
Downtown redevelopment would focus on building new public facilities, converting old public facilities to commercial space, and providing tax incentives for business to move downtown.
The danger here, said Daniel Rodriguez, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Department of City and Regional Planning, is that residents will end up with stuff they don't really need.
He cited Manhattan's South Street Seaport, Boston's Faneuil Hall or Baltimore's Inner Harbor as examples.
These are places were you can get perpetual motion machine or $20 cheeseburger but what you really need is a convenience store and a shoeshine guy.
"Most of the current central city revitalization leaves one with the feeling of walking into a theme park," said Rodriguez. "This must change."
With a pile of money lined up for public projects of all sorts, change is certain to come.