The Federal stimulus: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the same old shit | Slag Heap
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Monday, March 2, 2009

The Federal stimulus: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the same old shit

Posted By on Mon, Mar 2, 2009 at 7:06 AM

So last Thursday, I spent a couple hours at the CEOs for Cities "salon" discussion of the federal stimulus bill. (I'd have written about this sooner, but I've been sick and dealing with some other weirdness. Apologies to everyone who's been hitting "refresh" every 20 minutes for the past few days:  I'll call next weekend, Mom, I promise!) 

Anyway, the event was a discussion of the federal government's stimulus plan, and how it could help overhaul not just our infrastructure, but our entire approach to public investment.

To be honest, much of the event was boring, but for occasionally interesting reasons.

For one thing, we learned that $787 billion just doesn't go as far as it used to. State officials noted that Pennsylvania's share of the money available for bridge maintenance, for example, would cover the cost of rehabbing about 100 bridges -- and there are some 6,000 in need of repair across the state. 

Early on especially, I can't say I didn't spend a few idle moments reviewing my career goals. There was talk about how you got your MPOs and your EISes and on and on. Meanwhile, some of the crowd seemed sort of upset, which I didn't understand at first. And then it sunk in: The problem with the stimulus bill is that so far, at least, it's been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the same old shit we always do.

No matter how you measure it, $787 billion is a lot of money. But Don Carter, of the architecture firm Urban Design Associates, probably spoke for a lot of people when he said he was disappointed with the stimulus package. Conspiciously absent from it, he noted, was any sort of "urban agenda." In the '30s, FDR gave us the Works Progress Administration, whose contributions to the infrastructure are still paying off today. By comparison, this stimulus bill sacrificed a vision for tomorrow to create some jobs today.

Shortly afterward, the Port Authority's Steve Bland made it clear why that was. 

Bland spoke briefly about the bill's potential impact on local transit. This wasn't exactly big-picture stuff: As we all know, the Port Authority hopes to use much of the money to build the North Shore "Don't Call Me A Tragic Mistake" Connector. Bland also mentioned the need for some other less-than-glamarous improvements, like finally repairing that pedestrian bridge at the East Busway's Negley Avenue stop. 

But what Bland made clear is that the stimulus bill puts a premium on projects that are ready to go today -- "shovel ready," in the parlance. Stimulus money came with "use it or lose it" provisions: Money could be returned to the feds and redistributed to some other city. So it's no good talking about visionary projects and such, because by the time you convinced people of the need to build them, all the money for doing so would already be spent.

On one level, that makes sense -- the point of the stimulus bill is to, well, stimulate stuff. Obama wants to point to job-creation in a hurry, and Republicans will pillory him if he doesn't. That doesn't leave a lot of time for visioning or consensus building or any of the rest of it.

Then again, it's just this kind of thinking -- "produce results this quarter and damn the consequences!" -- that put our economy in the shitter to begin with. And the results of that approach here are obvious: Obama may be the new guy in town, with new ideas and a new approach. But by insisting on projects that are ready to go now, the feds inevitably are going to give their money to ideas proposed by the same old idiots we've always had with us. (People with shovel-ready projects, you may have noticed, tend to be the people who have years of practice laying on the BS with a shovel.) 

But that sort of thing isn't going to change overnight, obviously. The test for Obama will be how successful he is at remaking politics on the national level over time. Similarly, it will be interesting to see how much CEOs for Cities can advance its agenda locally. 

CEOs for Cities, as the name implies, is a nexus of leaders with an urbanist agenda. The Pittsburgh chapter's membership includes a bunch of familiar names: some of the area's more forward-thinking architects and developers; some non-profit folks; a couple city councilors unlikely to be invited to a Luke Ravenstahl fundraiser; and of course Dan Onorato (who was not in attendance). Ideally, these folks will use the stimulus package -- a percentage of which is still up for grabs -- to begin thinking of some more creative approaches to investment. 

Someday, one participant hoped, maybe good ideas will be shovel-ready too. Personally, I'd settle for free beer at the next meeting.

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