This new $825 billion stimulus package puts me in mind of winning the lottery: we'll probably blow most of it and there's a real danger we'll sink ourselves in the process. And like the lottery, someone else will be footing the bill for every penny we spend.
News reports have emphasized the transportation infrastructure component of the stimulus, but it turns out that roads, bridges, and public transit come to just over 5% of the package, or about $42 billion. Oregon's expecting roughly $420 million of that. By the time that filters down to Jackson County it's not even a big Powerball. But the fact is that the stimulus is coming our way, and we could do some great things with a few million.
Just not with these millions. Local transportation agencies are effectively prohibited from spending the stimulus on most projects of lasting impact. That's because projects of lasting impact require planning and flexibility and ongoing attention, while transportation projects using stimulus funds must begin within 90 days—so-called "shovel-ready" jobs. Forget any project requiring substantial design work, permitting, or environmental impact study. Forget thinking things through.
The proper use of borrowed money is for projects that solve ongoing problems. Projects that improve our situation rather than just maintaining it. That sort of project has been written right out of the question by the 90-day rule. Immediate job creation is a reasonable motivation for this package, but temporary employment alone, destined to evaporate leaving just a thin asphalt residue, is not enough to justify spending this much imagined wealth. The fact is, we'll put most of this money we didn't work for into projects we'll barely notice. One day they'll grind up a road that hadn't struck you as bad and the next day it'll be fresh and oily-black. Two days after that you'll forget it ever happened. We're mortgaging the farm to paint the barn. Pretend though, just for a minute, that it didn't have to be that way.
Go with me here, but don't worry, because what I'm suggesting will never happen. Let's make headlines: let's tell Washington that the Rogue Valley doesn't want our portion of the stimulus unless we can have the freedom to spend it in ways that will benefit our children for as long as they're paying it back. Failing that, we'll respectfully decline our portion, along with our share of the debt when the note comes due.
What kind of transportation project would justify the use of borrowed funds? Here's one that's been on my mind: I'd like to see a vehicle buy-back program for the Rogue Valley. Handgun buy-back programs intended to make city streets safer have been popular with urban police departments for years. But motor vehicles kill far more Americans every year than firearms, and a well-crafted vehicle buy-back program could make real progress in making our streets safer. In this program, you'll be able to trade in your car for a complete and personalized transportation package. If you like, we'll put local bike builders to work crafting you a custom ride, and you'll get a sturdy trailer to go with it. You'll get a voucher to a locally owned store for rain gear, comfortable walking shoes, and the finest umbrella you ever owned. Take good care of these things because your children were kind enough to buy them for you. But it's true you won't walk and bike everywhere, so you'll also get an annual bus pass and a membership in Ashland CarShare, which should, in this expanding market, be providing shared vehicles valley-wide. If you turn 16 and decide to forgo your driver's license, you get these benefits too.
By emphasizing a change in the way we travel, we'll be starting to change the system of incentives that has made us think three miles is too far ever to walk in a city, and a quarter mile is a bit far if the car's handy. We'll be reducing our need for transportation infrastructure and foreign oil, and learning how to provide for ourselves. We'll be addressing local needs through thrift instead of waste. That way, when we've finally stimulated our economy into complete submission, we'll at least have the makings of a transportation system we can still use—and more importantly, the knowledge, fitness, and willpower to use it.