In The Public Interest: A Jobs Bill That Builds More Jobs, Not More Highways

As everyone knows, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Yet the transportation spending in Congress's latest "jobs bill" looks insanely identical to the spending that went out the door almost a year ago in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Repeating earlier spending patterns wouldn't be such a serious problem if America's transportation system functioned well. But there is widespread consensus among citizen organizations around the country that our current approach to funding transportation is broken and in need of reform.

And, while 2/3 of our oil consumption and 1/3 of our global warming pollution comes directly from the amount we have to drive in this country, we continue to spend most of our transportation funds on highways.

This insanity comes partly from the misconception, firmly pushed last year by White House Economic Advisor Larry Summers, that stimulus money for highways would spend faster and create more jobs than public transportation projects.

But a look at the official data (PDF) tells a completely different story.

According to a new report released on Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Smart Growth America and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the public transportation money in last year's stimulus bill was spent faster and created twice as many jobs as the money spent on highway projects. Why? Public transportation projects are more complex and labor-intensive than highways, and fewer funds go to overhead costs that don't create any jobs, like purchasing land, just to cite two reasons.

According to the report, What We Learned from the Stimulus (PDF available here) public transportation spending from ARRA has created 16,000 "job-months" per billion dollars invested, while highway spending has created just over 8,500 "job-months" per billion.

The data also shows that funding for public transportation moves quicker into the economy, creating jobs faster. In other words, the most "shovel-ready" projects are bus and rail lines, not highway lanes and overpasses.

In fact, if the latest "Jobs for Main Street" package, which passed the House in December and will be taken up by the Senate this month, were changed to include equal amounts of funding for highways and public transportation, then an additional 71,415 additional job-months would be generated .

That's the equivalent of year-round employment for 5,951 additional workers.

The direct jobs are just one public interest benefit of investing in smarter transportation.

Among other benefits, new and expanded public transit and intercity rail projects would reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, and revitalize struggling urban economies. And jump-starting demand for buses and rail cars can also provide a new employment base to offset massive losses in the auto industry over the last decade. (Click here for a full report by U.S. PIRG.)

Finally, there should be little doubt about whether transit agencies can spend job-creation funds. While transit-riding has increased and driving has decreased over the last few years, state and local budget deficits have led to massive public transportation cuts around the country. It hardly makes sense to spend billions on new roads we don't need while cutting service on a transit network that millions rely on every day, especially when you can hire more people by doing the opposite.

If the goals of the jobs bill are to put the most people to work and to jump-start progress towards a more environmentally and economically sustainable future, then Congress needs to stop the insanity and pass a jobs bill that creates more jobs, not more highways.

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