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Stimulus bias foiling Obama's green plans

By: staff

Date: Sunday, 12. July 2009

If you’re one of those dogged urban or suburban commuters in the United States who grinds along in congested traffic for a couple of hours five days a week you won't be too happy with the results of the recent New York times study of the allocation of stimulus dollars for transportation.

A Texas Transportation Institute study estimates the average commuter wastes about one working week of travel time stuck in traffic, and about three weeks worth of gas every year. Changes to urban infrastructure could go a long way towards alleviating this waste. However, stimulus dollars allocated to transportation projects seem to be drifting towards rural projects out of proportion to their importance.

After analyzing the 5,274 transportation projects approved so far as part of the economic recovery stimulus plan, the New York Times has concluded that there is a strong bias in favor of rural areas over urban.

For example, a study completed by the Times shows that the King County area in Washington State, which includes the city of Seattle, got $34 per capita while Kittitas County, a rural area with a population of only 39,000, is receiving $836 per capita. This might be at the more extreme end of the spectrum but a chart published in the Times indicates that of the nation's twenty largest metropolitan areas almost all have received significantly less share of stimulus dollars than their share of Gross Domestic Product would suggest.

For example, New York city produces 8.53% of national GDP but got only 2.86% of the money allocated in the 5,274 projects. Boston urban area produces 2.09% of GDP but got only 0.45% of the money. St. Louis did much better, getting 0.91% of the stimulus money and producing 0.90% of GDP.

Transportation experts, says the Times, see the bias in stimulus spending as drawing attention to a long-term trend. We have a long history of shortchanging cities and metropolitan areas and allocating transportation money to places where few people live, urban planning expert Owen D. Gutfreund told the Times. An assistant professor of urban planning at the City University of New York, Gutfreund is author of the book "20th Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape" .

Gutfreund says that in some states money is traditionally allocated through a framework of statehouse politics and even given as political favors. In others, it is distributed by formulas that favor rural areas or give priority to state-owned roads that are often far from urban areas.

This could be a blow to president Obama's plans to reduce urban sprawl and turn American cities into more energy-efficient, greener economic engines for the economy.

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The bias towards rural spending is shortsighted and destructive. However, I can see how "shovel ready" projects might be easier to come by in rural areas. Whether it's through the undue influence of politicians or legislators or special interests, at least it gets jobs going RIGHT NOW, and that's what our economy needs.

In the long run though, if we want energy independence, less congestion and cleaner more livable cities we've got to improve those things that reduce wasteful commuting - public transport, traffic information technology, cleaner vehicles.