“Shovel Ready” Versus “Renewable Future” by Bill Dodge, Regional Excellence

Regional Excellence

“Shovel Ready” Versus “Renewable Future”

by Bill Dodge

New York’s Governor David Paterson has joined a chorus of state, regional and local leaders calling for a federal economic stimulus program to finance “shovel ready” public works. He is referring to the road, bridge, sewer, water and other public works projects that have already been designed and lack only financing for their implementation.

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.

Regional Community Development News - December 10, 2008 [regions_work]


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The First Regional President by Bill Dodge, Regional Excellence

The Regional Communities Blog is pleased to add, as a regular feature, the Regional Excellence column by Bill Dodge.

Regional Excellence

The First Regional President

by Bill Dodge

Regions have emerged as the nation’s new communities. President-Elect Barack Obama, if he chooses to be the first regional President, can focus federal government efforts on building the capacity of these new communities to address our toughest challenges.

These new regional communities are both urban and rural. The more urban ones evolved organically from small settlements into central cities and sprawling suburbs. The more rural ones create a national, even global, identity for groups of towns linked by common agricultural and natural areas. Successful regions attract the mix of entrepreneurs, capital, facilities, and workers needed to drive the national economy and provide the mix of amenities critical to living the good life, neither of which can be usually provided by individual jurisdictions.

Regions are often the most local level for delivering cost-effective water, sewer, transit, and other public services. They have also become the most appropriate level for addressing the toughest challenges. Regions are large enough to encompass economic marketplaces and environmental watersheds/airsheds, as well as rich and poor jurisdictions. Yet regions are small enough to engage community leaders and citizens in pursuing practical strategies to provide affordable infrastructure and services, protect threatened environments, and foster robust economic development.

Unfortunately, regions are almost impossible to govern. Federal, state, and local governments have created single purpose planning groups to address particular challenges, sometimes coordinated through regional councils of governments. In addition, other sectors have established regional chambers of commerce, united ways, academic institutes, community foundations, and citizens leagues. At times, these regional groups join forces to design strategies to address common challenges.

However, few regions have invested in building the capacity required to breathe life into these strategies, including providing the tools to test public acceptance, raise adequate financing, empower implementation mechanisms, and evaluate performance. This lack of capacity not only results in failed strategies, it puts regions stateside at a disadvantage with their global counterparts, which are being supported by their national governments and held accountable for addressing common challenges.

Building regional capacity would benefit from, and might only succeed, with a regional President.

First, President-Elect Obama could declare his regional citizenship. We are a nation of “closet” regionalists. We are proactive regional consumers, taking advantage of what the region offers, but reluctant regional stewards, unwilling to work with our neighbors to address common challenges. We have to give up some of our wasteful independence and become practicing regional citizens. President-Elect Obama could be the first to declare his regional citizenship, sign a regional pledge, and encourage the rest of us to do likewise.

Second, President-Elect Obama could use the White House “bully pulpit” to advance regional cooperation. He needs to quickly hire regional advisors, possibly as part of an Office of Intergovernmental Affairs that rebuilds the capacity of federal, state, and local governments to work together. He could issue an Executive Order directing federal agencies to identify regional opportunities for achieving agency goals and offer incentives to take advantage of them. He could work with the Congress to develop new tools for building regional capacity, such as by reinventing a region-friendly Department of Housing and Regional Development.

Third, President-Elect Obama could work with the Congress to fund the preparation of regional compacts to shape renewable growth. The overwhelming task facing each region is to understand a growing list of interconnected challenges -- decaying infrastructure, high fuel costs, economic meltdown, excessive CO2 emissions, rising foreclosure rates, fragmented service delivery, and shrinking resources -- and negotiate the agreements for addressing these challenges and shaping renewable, sustainable growth. The Federal government could offer matching grants to regions to negotiate these regional growth compacts and implement their priority initiatives. It could require regions to report regularly on implementation progress and tie future federal funding to regional performance.

Fourth, President-Elect Obama could meet regularly with regional representatives to build the capacity to address tough challenges. Initially, he could do this in annual White House Conferences on Regional Excellence. Over time, regions should create their own forum, such as a Council of Regions, to share progress in addressing tough challenges, pursue a National Regional Agenda to build regional capacity, and meet regularly with the President, Congress, and federal agencies.

Becoming regional citizens, building regional capacity, negotiating regional growth compacts, and creating a national regional forum -- four keys to addressing our toughest challenges. All depend on a President who practices his regional citizenship.


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.