Transportation spending faces competition under Brookings’ COVID-19 infrastructure plan

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Major transportation projects would have to share the spending spotlight with clean energy, waterworks, and expanded broadband internet service under a new infrastructure stimulus strategy unveiled by the Brookings Institute on July 30.

Concerns over the well-being of low-income communities will shift priorities for stimulus spending over heavy roadwork. the Brookings Institution noted in its report, “An Infrastructure Stimulus Plan for the COVID-19 Recession.”

“Shovel ready right now may reflect what society needed 20 years ago, but may not have anything to do with what the future ought to be like,” Michael Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said during a panel discussion on the report.

Neither Congress nor the Trump administration has proposed a specific infrastructure plan as of yet, and Pagano and other participants in a Brookings virtual panel discussion did not expect one to appear until after the next general stimulus plan is figured out in the weeks to come. If and when Washington does take up the debate, the definition of infrastructure will likely be broader and could include projects that won’t necessarily involve the transportation industry.

The new Brookings study concluded that getting transportation infrastructure projects actually underway is often too time-consuming to provide any real economic developments in the depths of a recession. A better use of stimulus funding might be footing the bill for maintenance to existing roads and mass transit assets as well as water infrastructure, parks, and other needs. “While the term ‘shovel-ready projects’ still tends to lead conversations about stimulus packages, few capital projects can move quickly enough to create substantial jobs or upgrade systems’ quality during a recession,” said the report. “Federal lawmakers should adopt policies that can immediately benefit disadvantaged households and create training programs that lead to durable career opportunities.”

The report proposed four approaches – estimated to cost anywhere from $167 billion to $327 billion – aimed more at maintaining municipal assets and developing long-term jobs and employment skills in struggling communities:

  • A program to help households with the costs of broadband, water and energy services, and essential public transportation
  • Direct grants to cities and states to help pay for “state-of-good-repair” and other short-term maintenance projects
  • Multi-year funding for job training and paid apprenticeships
  • Ramp-up research investment in programs to modernize water infrastructure, speed up adoption of clean energy, and “address environmental injustices in transportation and land use.”

The Brookings panel predicted that projects focused on the overall quality of life in individual communities, including some that have languished for years, should and would get a fresh look. “There are community needs outside roadways and even transit systems,” said Rebecca Higgins, senior policy advisor with the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “Maybe they are small-scale? Maybe they are not all going to be mega projects?”

The Brookings report noted that the COVID-19 economic downturn differed from the Obama administration’s strategy to address the recession of 2008 in that 2020 slammed the service sector while the construction sector has, for the most part, remained on its feet. Minority and low-income communities have been particularly impacted, but state and local governments have been able to maintain services at acceptable levels, thanks largely to “rainy day funds” that were set aside during the recent economic good times.

Cities, however, have been forced to pare down planning staff and reconsider their own infrastructure spending priorities, which means plans to expand or upgrade transportation could become expendable. “Public health spending is going to be a sacred cow and we’ll need to increase it,” said Adie Tomer, a Fellow in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “That means infrastructure projects will be on the chopping block.”