Moving the economy

Our view: If the knock against a stimulus plan is that it takes too long to create jobs, Maryland (and others) have a rebuttal: a truckload of transportation projects ready to roll

November 30, 2008

A major criticism of a government-financed stimulus package that relies on spending huge sums to rebuild the nation's public infrastructure is the lag between the measure's passage and the resulting jobs. Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari has good reason to think that's not much of a problem this time around.

That's because he's got a stack of more than $310 million worth of transportation-related projects ready to go. In some cases, there are jobs that might literally be created within hours of the bill's enactment - resurfacing contracts, for instance, that can be immediately expanded to restore miles of aging highway.

Indeed, state transportation officials are confident that any new federal money could be committed within 120 to 180 days - lightning fast by government procurement standards. It's so fast that the major hold-up is more likely to be cold winter weather that makes it difficult to pour asphalt or concrete outdoors.

Mr. Porcari's list varies from repairs to bridges in Western Maryland to purchasing locomotives for the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system.

While much of the work would involve highway or transit construction, it could also easily include the Port of Baltimore (dredging the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal) and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (resurfacing and expanding aprons and taxiways). Most of the potential projects have already been designed and engineered; in many cases, necessary permits are in hand.

Ironically, such a quick turnaround is possible in large part because Mr. Porcari has had to do so much cost-cutting in recent months. The state has trimmed $1.1 billion from its six-year capital projects plan because of declining tax revenue.

Many states have it worse. The recession has been a perfect nightmare for transportation projects, which are financed in large measure by car and truck sales that are hitting record lows and by taxes on gasoline at a time when people are driving less.

But the $500-billion-or-bigger stimulus plan now being promoted by President-elect Barack Obama has given Washington an exceptional opportunity to recharge an important segment of the economy. According to one trade group, a billion dollars in transportation spending involves 35,000 jobs. That means a $310 million investment in Maryland could translate into 10,000 jobs - if not created outright then at least retained, as many cash-strapped contractors would be forced to layoff workers otherwise.

If government is going to borrow from the future to prime the economic pump as quickly as possible, let the money be spent on building (or rebuilding) transportation systems that can benefit future generations. That especially applies to energy-conserving, environmentally sound public transit. It's money that not only helps today's economy but represents a genuine investment in tomorrow.

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