120 days in, SGA reviews the stimulus spending on transportation

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Within the $787 billion stimulus bill that became law in February, Congress provided states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) with $26.6 billion in flexible funds for transportation projects. Today marks 120 days from the apportionment of the funds to the states.

The 120-day mark is significant because it is the point by which states and territories are required to have obligated 50 percent of the flexible money granted them for transportation projects by the federal government. The money is meant to stimulate the economy, but also — in the language of the Act — “to invest in transportation, environmental protection, and other infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits.”

The stimulus funding arrives at a time of embarrassingly large backlogs of road and bridge repairs, inadequate and underfunded public transportation systems, and too-few convenient, affordable transportation options.

Did states use their flexible money to make progress on these pressing needs?

After analyzing project descriptions provided by states and MPOs, Smart Growth America found forward looking states and communities that used the stimulus money as flexibly as possible, repairing roads and bridges and making the kinds of smart, 21st century transportation investments that their communities need to support strong economic growth.

Other states and communities missed this golden opportunity to create jobs while making progress on their most pressing transportation needs. These states spent their precious funds on building new roads rather than repairing existing roads, and ignored the chance to spend the money flexibly on the kinds of options that their residents really want — like public transportation or streets safe for walking and biking — leaving their communities stuck in traffic and stuck in the past.

The benefits of road repair and public transportation

While adding new roads or road capacity is often necessary, repair projects have been shown to provide greater benefits in the long run. Road and bridge repairs produce more jobs because more of the budget is typically devoted to salaries instead of equipment and land acquisition. Yet states continue to spend large amounts of money on new roads, though they cannot afford to maintain what they already have.

Americans desperately need options for getting around, with escalating gas prices and painful public transportation cuts taking their toll. Fewer than half of Americans have convenient access to public transportation, and many streets are too unsafe to walk or bike.

Despite the golden opportunity of extra funding, most states did not use the opportunity to make as much progress as possible on long-term goals. Even though repair backlogs can stretch years or decades into the future, nearly one-third of the money, $6.6 billion, went towards roadway new capacity projects. At a time when public transportation ridership is hitting all-time highs and the budget crunch is causing transit agencies to cut routes, service and jobs, an abysmal 0.9% was spent on public transportation. Only 2.8% percent was spent on non-motorized projects (i.e., bike and pedestrian projects).

Road repair winners and losers

Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont committed to making their existing networks safer and more effective for their residents. Each of these states put 100% of the stimulus money they chose to spend on roads towards maintenance work.

Nevada, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Oklahoma all spent over 90% of their stimulus road budgets on repair as well.

In contrast, Ohio, Florida, Arkansas, Kansas, and Kentucky were inflexible, out of balance and out of step with what will keep their residents safe and moving into the 21st century. Each of these states committed less than half of their stimulus road budgets on maintenance. Kentucky committed 88% of its road spending to new roads.

More options for getting around: Winners and losers

The District of Columbia committed 41.5% of its funding toward public transportation and non-motorized projects, including facilities to make walking and biking safer and more convenient. Only 6 other states spent over 10% of their budgets on these types of projects: Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon, Iowa, Colorado, and Hawaii.

Spending 0.0% towards improving transportation options for their residents? An incredible fourteen states: Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Four more states — Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Nevada — allocated under 1%.

Get more information about how your state stacked up in spending the transportation stimulus money. Download the full report.

→View all Smart Growth America stimulus resources.