Priming the pump

Our view : A proposal to spend billions more on the nation's neglected transportation needs is a wise investment if it's a one-time assist to the economy and not a budget buster

October 16, 2008

House Democrats raised the ante on the latest potential economic stimulus plan by endorsing a one-time boost of up to $300 billion in federal spending with much of it going to roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Congress ought to invest in public works, especially transportation - but only if elected officials can somehow be restrained from larding up the measure with earmarks, tax cuts and other goodies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues have shown signs of going bullish on pork by including aid to states and extra money for food stamps and unemployment insurance. Some of that may be necessary, eventually, but what's needed now is a fast, job-creating infusion of cash directly into the economy.

It also should be a one-shot enterprise and not a recurring strain on an already hugely out-of-balance federal budget. That's why Minority Leader John A. Boehner's call for corporate tax cuts is flat-out wrong. Tax cuts have their place, but only if they are offset with reductions in spending. Expecting tax cuts to pay for themselves is flawed thinking - as the Bush years have amply demonstrated.

Democrats tried to go down this public investment road once before with a $61 billion stimulus measure that was rebuffed last month by the Senate. But the recession has grown far worse since then, and members of Congress are beginning to realize something even bigger is needed to prop up the economy.

Spending it on transportation returns the biggest yield not only because it creates jobs immediately - many projects are ready to go, thanks to the government's failure to fund transportation adequately in recent years - but also because ultimately, it greatly facilitates the movement of goods from one place to another.

But we would add one caveat: Highway and bridge construction ought to be limited to renovations and making them safer. Money to expand capacity ought to be funneled exclusively into public transportation, whether it's high-speed rail between cities, conventional light rail or bus lines serving gridlocked communities.

In an era of high energy prices and mounting concerns over climate change, reducing our dependence on oil, particularly foreign but domestic as well, needs to be a higher priority. If by building more roads Washington encourages more oil consumption, it has worsened economic prospects for the long term.

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