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Stimulating a Better Commute

The addition of more transit money to the House stimulus bill before it passed was well received locally. And transportation officials in the Washington region are preparing substantial spending plans based on the hope that the bill will soon pass the Senate.

In fact, it is a lot of money, perhaps approaching $2 billion, as Post reporter Eric M. Weiss points out in his story today. But will it make your local travel a lot easier? Probably not.

This is an economic stimulus package, not a transportation plan. The goal is to spend money now and create jobs, not to bring about a fundamental change in how we get from here to there and back.

If the stimulus effort works, travelers will benefit. But the job of recasting the transportation system for the next few generations will remain ahead of us.

Right now, our transportation officials, all of whom had to rein in their spending plans because of the recession, are rummaging through long lists of slowed-down or postponed projects, looking for what's shovel-ready.

There are several filters. The projects they select must be ones that are eligible for federal funds. The money will come down through the usual federal pipelines. No brilliant idea for a new highway or transitway is going to receive a congressional earmark.

For all the complexities of the bill, the bottom line for the transportation planners is pretty simple: Get the money, spend the money. And do it in a hurry.

Maryland, for example, states its spending goals for the potential $700 million this way: "system preservation and maintenance projects." That means protecting bridges, repaving highways, ensuring safe travel, upgrading roads and sidewalks to make sure they are accessible for disabled people and improving traffic flow through some intersections. For Maryland transit, the focus is on upgrading equipment, with an emphasis on bus systems.

All the jurisdictions and Metro are emphasizing maintenance of what they've got, not new tricks. That still would be money well spent. The only shovel we've been using lately is the one that's dug us a great big hole on maintenance, and we desperately need to climb out of that.

But huge as this stimulus plan is, it won't be cutting 20 minutes off your commute or guaranteeing you a seat on a train. That's going to take a bit longer and cost a lot more.

By Robert Thomson  |  January 29, 2009; 8:31 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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