"Shovel-Ready" Criteria May Disqualify Worthy Projects

We've heard an awful lot about â''shovel-readyâ'' projects latelyâ''those not yet funded infrastructure projects around the country that will be the beneficiaries of the Obama administrationâ''s attempt to jumpstart the economy. To qualify for fast-tracking consideration, they will reportedly have to be ready to go within 90 to 120 days of securing funds. Funding may be withdrawn if they encounter significant delays. Unfortunately, if we take the phrase â''shovel-readyâ'' literally as a predictor of which infrastructure projects will receive government financing under the stimulus package, a lot worthy projects are not going to qualify.

â''Betsyâ'' in Raleigh, a respondent to Paul Krugmanâ''s â''The Obama Gap,â'' opinion piece in the January 8, 2008, New York Times says it all too well: â''I question the emphasis on so-called 'shovel-ready' projects. Is there something about paying a planner or engineer in the design stages of a project that is less real than paying a backhoe operator? If the object is to get money and paychecks flowing in the domestic economy, does the income of the engineer not do that as much as that of a laborer?â''

If shovel-ready does turn out to be a literal criterion, one of the most ambitious and forward-looking mass transportation projects under planning in the Northeast, the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, will fail to secure stimulus funding. The current bridge spans the Hudson River between the counties of Rockland and Westchester in New York State. According to the projectâ''s website, between 140,000-170,000 vehicles cross the 3.1-mile span daily. The average number was 18,000 daily when the bridge was opened in 1955. The replacement bridge, which is estimated to cost $16 billion, will include cars, commuter trains and a dedicated corridor for bus rapid transit. The BRT will connect Suffern in Rockland County to Port Chester in Westchester. The new rail line will connect the Metro North line in Suffern on the Rockland side of the Hudson River with Tarrytown, a Metro-North stop on the Westchester side of the river.

Although the current bridge undergoes regular maintenance it was not built for its current capacity. The extraordinary congestion it experiences during commuter hours is the stuff of urban legends. The New York State Department of Transportation has made the courageous decision NOT to increase the non-mass-transit capacity of the current bridge with the replacement bridge. Instead the DOT hopes to entice drivers out of their cars as they sit trapped in traffic and watch the high speed, high tech buses and trains speed past.

However, the DOT contemplates at least a two year environmental review as communities and policymakers work together to map out the best design for the bridge and optimal roots for the bus and light rail.

These deliberations will take time but it is hard to argue that the new bridge wonâ''t accomplish many of Obama's stated policy objectives--energy independence, improved mass transit, safer infrastructure, and enhanced public health-- across one of the most congested commuter corridors in the Northeast.

So here's hoping the new Congress comes up with a more enlightened definition of "shovel ready" that would not preclude immediate funding for this and other, visionary public sector projects.

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