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How we can use existing transportation dollars for job growth

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was designed by Congress to stimulate the economy and put people back to work. As part of ARRA, states received $26.6 billion in flexible transportation funds to create jobs and spur the economy.

As President Obama said during the State of the Union, smart transportation strategies can attract new business and bring millions in private sector investment and revenue.

Which states translated those dollars into jobs and economic growth?

According to a recently released study from Smart Growth America, a national organization that advocates for transportation policies that support businesses, create jobs and provide more options for how people get around, states that maintained and repaired existing roads and bridges and invested in public transportation projects created the most jobs. The states that ranked poorly spent their funds building new roads and bridges.

Historically, investments in public transportation generate 31 percent more jobs per dollar than new roads; road and bridge repairs create 16 percent more jobs per dollar than new construction. Why? Because these projects invest more in workers and their paychecks and less in land, which has little or no stimulative or reinvestment value.

The new study documents an even more dramatic finding in ARRA; each dollar spent on public transportation produced 70 percent more job hours than a dollar spent on highway programs.

Unfortunately, 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. And while this might seem good, as a country we have hundreds of billions in repair backlogs that we can’t afford to pay now.  Spending nearly 40 percent of the money on the activity that creates the least jobs – to add to an infrastructure that we already can’t maintain – seems like a missed opportunity. 

We have to do better. President Obama’s speech provides us with a call to action that we hope local, state and federal government will heed.

Governors and legislatures are beginning to make the hard choices about next year’s spending priorities. The good news is they can produce more jobs with existing dollars. We urge them to reprioritize their transportation funding and focus on projects that will provide the strongest economic stimulus: repair and maintenance of existing roads and bridges and investment in public transportation.

Past decisions about transportation spending are detours, not dead ends. While the golden opportunity of ARRA funding has passed, state and federal governments can learn the lessons of ARRA and meet President Obama’s challenge to do what is best for the economy.

Smarter transportation spending makes sound economic sense. Plus, people are asking for it. According to a recent national survey conducted by Smart Growth America, 91 percent of voters believe that 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 expanding and improving bus, rail, van service, biking, walking, and other transportation choices should be the top or a high priority.

Rebuilding the economy is the most significant issue of our generation. At this critical moment, we must spend the money we have effectively. Wise spending of transportation dollars produces immediate results in jobs and economic prosperity, and also gives us the long-term infrastructure we need to prosper in a competitive world. With smart transportation funding, our leaders have the opportunity to win the future.

Christine Todd Whitman is the former governor of New Jersey and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Parris Glendening is the former governor of Maryland, and is the president of the Smart Growth America Leadership Institute, which helps state and local elected, civic and business leaders design and implement effective smart growth strategies. 

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