December 10, 2008
Texas transportation officials have sent the state’s congressional delegation a $6.2 billion list of ready-to-go road projects on the chance a stimulus package is approved, including nearly $677 million for the Houston area.
Critics, however, are questioning whether the list, which is heavy on routine maintenance, would be the best use of an infusion of money, while experts debate how much government should do.
“What I want us to do is … not act like we’re getting a big ol’ Christmas gift where the only issue is the money. We need to be sure we’re going to spend any money well,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee vice-chairman.
Watson said officials should examine each proposed project to see what sort of economic benefit it would bring, whether the project is sustainable and how federal money could be leveraged. He said the Texas Department of Transportation’s list includes older projects, some of which “may be old for a reason.”
Projects in the Houston district, which includes Harris and nearby counties, range from road repairs to installation of new traffic signals to landscape development to adding lanes to some stretches of road.
TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the list is made up of projects that have been identified as necessary and only lack the money to move forward. It was compiled through TxDOT district offices, which work with local planning organizations.
“It is an answer to the question, ‘What could be let to contract in the first nine months of the year?’ ” Lippincott said.
He added, “To find projects that would provide the economy a shot in the arm, you’re typically going to see smaller projects” that can be done in a short period of time, such as maintenance, filling potholes, overlaying a surface and landscaping.
“The goal of an economic stimulus package is to put shovels in the dirt and put money in people’s pockets. So those are the projects you end up with,” he said.
Lippincott said TxDOT hasn’t calculated how many jobs would be created by its $6.2 billion list or what the greater economic impact would be.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, a Transportation and Homeland Security member, said, “It’s no secret that Texas has massive infrastructure needs. While federal money for roads is necessary, I also hope that a large amount of money will be used to relocate freight rail lines outside of Texas’ urban areas which would open up great opportunities for using rail for mass transit.”
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, a Transportation and Homeland Security member, said the list makes sense as part of a stimulus package.
“I think every state is going through that process. I’ve heard the recommendation made any number of times ‘People should put up a list of projects that are already approved,” Wentworth said.
Supporters of President-elect Barack Obama’s call for sweeping infrastructure investments say running up the federal debt to create jobs and buoy the economy shouldn’t be a concern now.
There’s not agreement on how far the government should go, however, or how much a transportation stimulus would help.
Some experts and officials, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are wary of such expenditures.
“The governor thinks it’s bad public policy that Washington needs to get out of the business of bailouts and never should have been in the business in the first place,” said Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle.
“That said, … if the federal government is going to be doling out Texas taxpayers’ dollars around the country, we’ll fight to make sure we get our fair share,” said Castle.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who heads the public works committee, said in a letter to Obama that each $1 billion in federal highway construction supports 35,000 jobs, and investments from 1949 to 2000 netted a 34 percent economic return.