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The White House released detailed information yesterday on the $28 billion the stimulus bill directs toward highway construction. According to a press release (sorry, no link), the highway spending will "lead to 150,000 jobs saved or created by the end of 2010." An estimated 95,000 jobs would come from the "direct impact of building new roads and fixing old ones," while 55,000 jobs would come from "the economic activity generated when these new workers spend more than they would have otherwise."

From the White House fact sheet:

It is also worth noting that jobs in highway construction tend to pay better than average. The typical, or median hourly wage for all jobs in the economy was $15.10 in 2007 according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for workers in the highway industry, the typical hourly wage was $18.31, a premium of over $3 per hour over the economy-wide median wage.
 
Looking more closely at different types of jobs within the industry helps to explain the difference. The median wage of blue collar, or production workers—folks who do jobs like welding and mixing—comes to about $16 per hour in highway construction compared to about $13.50 in the overall economy.

This page at Recovery.gov has a map you can use to see how much money in highway funds will go to individual states. For instance, Iowa is slated to receive about $358 million, of which about $240 million can be used in any part of the state. The remaining money is to be allocated as follows: $10.7 million for "mandatory transportation enhancements," $20.8 million for use in urban areas, $73.2 million for use in suburban areas and $13.4 million for use in rural areas. (By the way, "'enhancement' is a legally defined term for projects such as sidewalk repairs, bicycle paths, and beautification projects.")

Decisions within each state on where to spend the money need to be made quickly:

Parts of the allocation are set aside to make sure that urban, suburban, and rural areas alike all get a share. But since local leaders -- mayors and governors -- know their communities best, much of the money is left to states' discretion. And if states don't use it, they lose it. To make sure that funds go out quickly to give our economy the jolt it needs, states have 120 days to assign the funds to specific projects.

As a rule, federal highway funds tend to go toward new road construction, but it would be better to direct the stimulus funds primarily toward fixing the roads and bridges we have. Fixing crumbling roads and bridges improves safety, the quality of life and property values in existing neighborhoods. Building new roads stimulates sprawl without solving traffic congestion problems.

Attempts to ease congestion with road-building have been only temporarily effective; communities that have built the most roads have had no more success in keeping congestion in check than areas that have not added much road capacity – and in some cases less. Automobile-oriented transportation is also expensive: most Americans spend more on transportation than on health care, education or food, and those costs are highest in the most sprawling metropolitan areas.

Most of us like to think of America as a land of choices. Yet in just about any community built in the last 50 years, when it comes to transportation there is only one choice: to own a car and use it for every single activity of the day.

Sprawling development also increases "vehicle miles traveled" per capita and consequently greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks.

Spending stimulus highway money on a "fix-it-first basis" would not only be wise, but also popular. A national survey by Hart Research Associates, released last week, found that

An overwhelming majority of Americans believe restoring existing roads and bridges and expanding transportation options should take precedence over building new roads [...]

To accommodate future U.S. population growth, which is expected to increase by 100 million by 2050, Americans favor improving intercity rail and transit, walking and biking over building new highways. When asked what the federal government’s top priority should be for 2009 transportation funding, half of all respondents recommended maintaining and repairing roads and bridges, while nearly one third said "expanding and improving bus, rail, and other public transportation." Only 16 percent said "expanding and improving roads, highways, freeways and bridges."

When asked about approaches to addressing traffic, 47 percent preferred improving public transportation, 25 percent chose building communities that encourage people not to drive, and 20 percent preferred building new roads. fifty-six percent of those surveyed believe the federal government is not devoting enough attention to trains and light rail systems, and three out of four favor improving intercity rail and transit.

Transportation for America, a new coalition of more than 225 organizations, has called on President Barack Obama and Congress to "launch a new federal transportation mission" when the federal transportation program comes up for reauthorization later this year. That will be a major battle in Congress. In the meantime, here's hoping most states with spend their stimulus money wisely and not on building every new road on developers' wish lists.

Originally posted to desmoinesdem on Wed Mar 04, 2009 at 05:22 AM PST.

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