In late January President Obama gave his State of the Union address and in it, our marching orders: pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians.
When it comes to the economy, we know that the road to recovery is still long. Forty-six state governments are beginning 2011 with budget shortfalls, and national unemployment is still hovering at 10 percent. That's why it's so important that our leaders put smart policies in place now that will save money and create jobs.
This isn't the first time our country's leaders have had the opportunity to get us out of this economic rut. In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to boost the economy and put Americans to work. As part of the Act, states received $26.6 billion in flexible transportation funds that they could use for virtually any transportation need. And while the goals of ARRA were many, creating jobs was arguably the most pressing.
Given that goal, Smart Growth America, an organization that advocates for people who want to live and work in great neighborhoods and believes smart growth solutions support businesses and jobs, asked a simple question: did states use these transportation funds to invest in the kinds of projects that would save money and create the greatest number of jobs possible?
In our new report, "Recent Lessons from the Stimulus: Transportation Funding and Job Creation," we find the answer to that question, unfortunately, is no.
The good news: while the results were disappointing, the findings provide states with a roadmap to repair our crumbling roads and bridges and invest in public transportation to jump start the economy.
The report, which highlights how well states created jobs using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) flexible transportation dollars, provides governors, Departments of Transportation and legislatures across the country with a smart investment strategy to maximize existing transportation dollars for job creation now and economic growth in the future.
We know from years of experience that when it comes to transportation spending, the biggest job creators are: 1) public transportation, and 2) repair and maintenance projects. Historically, public transportation investments generate 31 percent more jobs per dollar than new construction of roads and bridges, and repair work on roads and bridges creates 16 percent more jobs per dollar than new construction.
In the new study Smart Growth America found that only 1.7 percent of the stimulus' flexible transportation money was allocated to the top job creator: public transportation. Fifty-nine percent of this money went to the second largest job creator: preserving and maintaining roads. While spending more than half of our funds on repair might seem good, our nation already has hundreds of billions of dollars in repair backlogs that we can't afford to fix now.
We can do better. If more states had allocated more dollars to repair and maintenance projects and public transportation, then more jobs and more private sector investment would have been generated.
Focusing on repair and maintenance and public transportation projects isn't just good fiscal policy -- it's what the public wants. A recent Smart Growth America survey found that 91 percent of voters believe maintaining and repairing our roads and bridges should be the top or a high priority for state spending on transportation programs, and 68 percent believe that improving and expanding transportation options -- including bus, rail, van service, biking, walking, and other transportation choices -- should be the top or a high priority.
Right now governors and state legislators have an opportunity to lead the way toward economic recovery as they finalize their 2011 budgets, deciding which critical programs will stay and which will get cut. When it comes to their transportation decisions, I encourage them to use our report as a roadmap to economic recovery. The polls say ribbon cuttings for repair are now more popular than for new roads. Voters may not know the precise numbers, but they get that if states spend $1 now on preventive maintenance, they will actually save $6-$10 in major rehab later. And it's not just government costs that go up -- rough roads add an average of $335 to the annual cost of owning a car due to damaged tires, suspensions and reduced fuel efficiency. Now doesn't seem like the time to ask hard-pressed Americans to spend money they don't have fixing their cars because of bad road conditions.
By prioritizing the care of existing infrastructure and public transportation, states can stretch precious transportation dollars further, put more Americans back to work, and help our economy grow.