The stimulus engine that can't

Remember, it's just a down payment on transport. The US needs a long-term strategy.

Mass-transit supporters are tooting a warning over the Obama-backed stimulus bill. Here's an industry that's light on carbon, oil, and congestion, and all it may get is a $9 billion coach seat on the $825 billion train to economic recovery. Wasn't this recession-ending spending supposed to be a "down payment" on America's infrastructure and clean-energy needs?

There's a danger in expecting too much from a down payment. When it comes to transportation – mass transit, roads, rail, air, and freight – the country's requirements are so vast and interconnected they can't possibly be met in a bill meant for short-term job creation.

The transport sector, so vital to US competitiveness, should be gearing up for what comes after the stimulus. Its many players should be pressuring the new administration and Congress for nothing short of a new approach to moving people, goods, and ideas within and outside America's borders.

If airports feel congested now, try them in 2015, when fliers are expected to increase by 36 percent. The projected rise for freight moved by rail is 67 percent between 2000 and 2020. International trade is expected to swamp the country's ability to move it – with volume at America's ports perhaps quadrupling over the next 30 years.

This recession may ease these stresses. But the downturn won't last forever. And population growth marches on, with 150 million more people in the US over the next five decades driving, flying, and riding.

Many countries look at their national transport needs in totality. The US, though, is "one of the few industrialized countries that fails to link aviation, freight rail, mass transit and passenger rail networks – a recipe for duplication and waste," according to a recent Brookings Institution report.

China is embarking on a massive rail and highway plan to move more people and freight between its modern coastal cities and vast interior. Germany has a master freight strategy and is strengthening rail and telecom links between cities.

The US has no such vision for the nation. It needs high-speed rail, a new air-traffic control system, overhauled ports, new locks on waterways, and ways to connect them, yet conversations on these subjects take place separately in Washington.

The connections must be made, along with the bigger link between energy use and carbon emissions in moving people and goods. The transport sector, for instance, accounts for about a third of US carbon emissions. As Congress and the White House take up major energy, climate, and transportation legislation, they must be aware of the overlap.

A new strategy, too, is required to pay for the work ahead – $225 billion per year by states and the feds over the next five decades (and that's just for surface transport). Encouragingly, the new administration welcomes the role of the private sector in this equation.

As Congress wrangles over the stimulus package, mass transit may yet do better compared with highways and bridges, which are slated for three times the funding. But sights should be set on the long term. The US approach to transportation needs an overhaul.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.