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President-elect Barack Obama recently proposed a massive federal infrastructure plan that he likened to the New Deal and President Dwight Eisenhower's historic initiative to create the interstate highway system.
When roads and bridges are crumbling and public transportation systems are scrambling to keep up with booming demand, Obama and others are right to recognize the need for investment. But it is critically important how infrastructure money gets spent. It is not enough for Congress to simply spend money. In fact, poorly thought out transportation policy contributes to many of America's most pressing problems.
- Each year Americans waste billions of dollars and millions of hours stuck in traffic -- a problem that is often made worse by construction of new highways.
- As driving has increased over the decades, transportation has become the second biggest expense for the average household -- even more than health care and just behind housing costs.
- Our transportation system is the chief source of our nation's addiction to oil, leaving America vulnerable to volatile prices and hostile foreign regimes.
- Cars and trucks are the biggest end-user source of global warming pollution, contributing to a third of the nation's emissions and nearly half of our state's.
Clearly, not every infrastructure dollar is created equal. Rather than spend more money with a 20th-century transportation fix, the next administration and Congress should focus on a 21st-century solution. We need to focus only on projects that advance long-term national goals, by alleviating congestion, improving safety, increasing transportation choices, increasing our energy independence, curbing global warming pollution, and supporting affordable, healthy, sustainable communities.
To reach these goals, at least as much money should go to expanding modern public transportation (light rail, commuter rail, rapid bus service, etc.) as to roads and highways. The economic rescue package should also include assistance for our region's transit agencies. Operating support would quickly put people to work and help our working families deal with the effects of the economic slowdown and volatile gas prices.
Additional capital funds now could help agencies such as King County Metro Transit make investments that will reduce operating costs over the long term, such as the planned purchase of additional 60-foot hybrid coaches.
Finally, Congress should use the stimulus package to fund sustainable, transit-oriented communities. Smart Growth projects such as King County's Burien Transit-Oriented Development Project and the 98th Street White Center Connector project are good examples of local projects that could jump start Washington's economy and keep us all moving.
Investments in ready-to-go transit and pedestrian projects, such as those listed above, will create a wealth of employment opportunities in the short and the long run. Studies show transit investments create almost 20 percent more jobs than new highways for the same amount of spending.
Also, any new spending for roads and bridges must prioritize rehabilitating our current system. It is irresponsible to spend massive amounts on new interchanges and lane expansions when our existing roadways and bridges suffer from long-deferred repair and maintenance needs.
To ensure accountability, state transportation departments should be required to report back on the effectiveness of their spending relative to job creation, fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and vehicle miles traveled.
The incoming administration and the next Congress have a tremendous opportunity to turn the economy around. A bad deal could do more harm than good, but a good deal could help us meet many of America's most important challenges while setting us on the path to a better, more sustainable 21st-century transportation system.
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