Infrastructure in Obama's billion-dollar bail out
Infrastructure in Obama's billion-dollar bail out Feb 2009
Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
As well as vast sums of money for tax cuts, government give-aways, and bad bank bail-outs, stimulus packages around the world are at last beginning to spend money on real assets.
President Obama's $787 billion 'American Recovery and Reinvestment Act', which Congress passed last Friday (14 February 2009) and the President signed into law on Tuesday (17 February), targets some $120 billion to be spent on infrastructure. From sewers to highways, mass transit systems to water supply networks, funding that has not been afforded these vital items of nationhood and prosperity in the good times, are at last being injected with serious money and attention.
Within that £120 billion infrastructure allocation, about $19 billion is provided for investment in public transportation. $8.4 billion will be applied to transit projects with $6.9 billion distributed to projects already in the development through the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) grants scheme, and the remaining $1.5 billion available as grants for new projects. Another $9.3 billion is channeled to intercity passenger rail needs with $8 billion for high-speed rail corridors and a $1.3 billion transfusion for Amtrak. Under a separate allocation, $150 million is made available for rail and transit security grants
Billions more are allocated to rebuilding dams, bridges, highways, sewers and water supply systems. The scale of the investment is tremendous. All that steady investment that should have been maintaining systems and structures over the past decades is arriving in one big lump sum.
Funding frenzy
As can be imagined, lobbyists are out in full force along the corridors of the Capital. Priority, it is said, will go to ‘ready-to-go’ projects that can award contracts in 90 to 120 days and projects ready to take advantage of the pot of promise include so many tunneling projects that have sat wanting for so long, waiting for funding. These include: BART’s extension to San Jose in California; the Alaskan Way elevated highway rebuild in Seattle; the LBJ highway project in Dallas; Miami’s Port Tunnel project; the Indianapolis CSO program; the CSO program for the Anacostia River in Washington DC; San Francisco’s MUNI extension; new metro lines for Los Angeles, Caldecott’s fourth highway tunnel bore in California; California’s high-speed railway project. Projects already partaking of the benefits include the $813 million FFGA (full funding grant agreement) confirmed for Seattle Sound Transit’s University Link light rail extension start, and a Federal funding ROD (record of decision) extended in support of the multi-billion Access to the Region’s Core Trans-Hudson railway project between New Jersey and Manhattan.
These in themselves add up to billions in federal funding - and the really good thing? All include, or are wholly based, on underground and tunneled routes and structures. That silver lining for the tunneling industry to benefit by this economic crisis is looking shinier by the day. Obama's administration officials however have said be ware - 'pork' will not be tolerated. "We're not building 'Bridges to Nowhere.'"
It could be said however that this $120 billion infrastructure reinvestment is a trifle puny compared to the $2.2 trillion (yes, with a ‘t’) that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) say is needed over the next five years to bring US infrastructure up from their poor D+ or D- ratings to a mediocre C or a good B grade.
In its ASCE 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, drinking water systems get a D- with an estimated $11 billion shortfall for replacing aging pipelines that lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water a day. Wastewater networks, with another D-, are said to discharge billions of gallons of untreated wastewater into US waterways each year. An estimated $390 billion is needed over the next 20 years to take care of existing systems and build new ones to meet increasing demand.
Stimulus package allocations to public transportation also barely make a dent toward raising the C- and D ratings given by the ASCE’s report to rail and transit infrastructure.
An estimated $15.8 billion a year is needed to maintain public transit systems as they are, with up to $21.6 billion to reach a ‘good’ B condition. The report states that transit use in the US increased 25% between 1995 and 2005, faster than any other mode of transportation for the period, but nearly half of American households do not have access to bus or rail transit. In 2008, federal capital outlay for transit projects was only $9.8 billion.
Rail with its C- rating is needing more than $200 billion through 2035 to accommodate anticipated growth and reap the environmental and social rewards of a freight train being three times as fuel efficient as a truck, and a rail passenger using 20% less energy per mile than traveling by car.
But we are not looking the gift horse in the mouth. As William W. Millar, President of The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) said in a statement: “Investing in public transportation and intercity and high speed rail is part of the solution to helping build a stronger economy. Passage of [Obama’s economic stimulus package] is a win-win for American workers who need jobs and for the millions of people who use public transportation and passenger rail.”
Twists along the way to approving Obama’s rescue bill saw the House try to include a ‘Buy America’ clause to forbid the use of foreign steel and other products on infrastructure projects funded by the package, but this was amended to say that the US would abide by its international trade commitments. Wall Street registered an initial up-tick for shares in some big US manufacturing companies, in anticipation of a reversal in fortune, before taking another dive on the day of Obama’s signing of the bill into law. Critics question the wisdom of saving the current economic situation by increasing the national debt so massively. There was bad news also from other countries around the world that the downward spiral still has some way to go.
Despite continuing gloom, we can rejoice in the money to be spent on infrastructure. At least it will leave tangible evidence of the billions spent to save an economy that gorged itself on unreal money, spent on unreal or short-term glorifications. We will have to pay for it, but we will have the new dams, sewers, transit systems, and railways to show for it. Hoover Dam still stands as a lasting monument to the last great economic bailout of a financial and confidence crash.

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