by Bill Dodge
And the numbers are impressive! The governors came up with a list of $136 billion, the mayors $73 billion, and the regional councils of governments, $25 billion. Clearly, the need for public works has far outstripped the resources to build them.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and Congress are searching for a response to an economy that has slipped into recession, not only domestically, but globally.
Investing in public works is an especially attractive part of the response. First, it can provide jobs for those who have lost them. Second, it can provide the public works needed to grow a business or raise a family. And, it has a track record of proven success in previous economic declines.
However, this economic downturn has some unique characteristics. It had its share of excessive economic behavior, such as in housing, like earlier downturns. If that was the extent of the challenge, moderating this excessive behavior should restore economic health.
Unfortunately, this economic downturn appears to have even more triggered by excessive cultural behavior. Since the last century, we have been increasingly consuming on credit, depending on foreign oil, borrowing from the world, shrinking the middle class, using an unsustainable share of natural resources, and rarely looking beyond the current quarter. We have not saved, invested in alternative energy, balanced our trade, moderated rich-poor polarization, recycled natural resources, or addressed global warming and other long term challenges.
We have been unwilling to make the cultural changes that will make us energy self-sufficient, climate change adaptable, and economically equitable -- to become a renewable nation. And, until we do, it appears that it will be extremely difficult to restore economic health.
Now, how is this important to investing in public works as part of the federal economic stimulus program?
Do our “shovel ready” public works projects reflect the culture of the past or the future? Do they assume the endless expansion into undeveloped greenfields, a pattern of development that has resulted in underutilized public works, excessive gas consumption, and destruction of the forests and farmlands that are needed to address global warming? Or, the continuing abandonment of distressed urban and rural areas, from Detroit to Appalachia?
Do the "shovel ready" projects accept the continued unwillingness of some local governments to cooperate with their neighbors to provide shared, cost-effective water, sewer, transit, and other services? Do they require us to consume even more foreign oil, natural resources, and financing to build and operate them? Will they be built by workers who are paid less than a living wage?
A modest proposal. What if the federal economic stimulus was a two-phase effort?
Instead of financing major public works projects in 2009, invest in labor-intensive public works activities that reinforce the cultural values that will strengthen our economy. Fix up existing public works that are facing shortened lives due to lack of maintenance. Weatherize public buildings and assist homeowners to do the same. Recycle natural resources, such as converting pine trees destroyed by bark beetles into fuel for pellet stoves. These labor intensive public works activities will not only assist the unemployed, they will restore the public, and private, works needed to rebuild our economy.
Also, in 2009, provide funds to revisit “shovel ready” public works projects to make sure they are the “renewable future” projects of tomorrow. Invest in modifying the existing projects or developing new projects to test alternative approaches to renewability.
Then, in 2010, start financing these “renewable future” projects. Continue financing the labor-intensive public works activities, but find a balance between short-term activities and long-term projects. And spread the financial stimulus over the next few years, to identify the models from each round of projects that merit replication in future rounds.
Who should take the lead on implementing these economic stimulus activities? What about regional councils of governments (COGs)? COGs have representatives of all local governments and work with state and federal governments. They cover areas that are large enough to assure that public works activities are not duplicative and represent the best investments for the future.
There are approximately 600 regions nationwide. Give each of them a block of money now to quickly design and implement the labor-intensive public works activities and revisit the “shovel ready” projects. Then, give each of them a larger block of money in 2010 to begin implementing the “renewable future” projects. Provide flexibility for groups of regions to work together with states to address larger scale projects.
Why take this approach now? History is likely to conclude that the federal economic stimulus program will be an once-in-a-lifetime investment in public works. If we squander this investment on public works of the past, we can not expect to see similar resources available for investments in public works of the future.
Let’s make sure “shovel ready” is “renewable future”!
Bill Dodge assists community leaders and citizens to build their capacity to address regional challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and can be reached at WilliamRDodge@aol.com.