The Case For a Merit-Based and Front-Loaded Infrastructure Bill

Even as much of official Washington pauses for the holiday weekend, the congressional winds keep shifting in favor of a job-creation bill that aims to front-load infrastructure spending between next year and the 2012 election.

moynihan_articlebox.jpgA rendering of the proposed Moynihan Station (Photo: The Real Deal)

In Minnesota this week, reporters heard House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) tell a local conference that he would introduce a two-year front-loaded bill next month and aim to follow up with a four-year transportation bill — including the broad policy reforms he once hoped to pass in 2009.

Any near-term infrastructure legislation lacking those policy changes likely would run its money through existing federal transportation formulas that tend to favor roads over transit and don’t include a "fix-it-first" mandate to prioritize repairs.

But even if Oberstar’s long-term reforms are left out of a front-loaded bill, lawmakers are not doomed to use outmoded formulas that shortchanged urban areas during the early months of the economic stimulus effort.

A framework already exists for the merit-based selection of infrastructure projects: the TIGER grants, which offered $1.5 billion in stimulus money to transport plans that would create the most jobs and deliver the biggest livability benefits, whether they dealt with transit, ports, bridges, or roads.

The TIGER grants, which the U.S. DOT sees as a first step towards more accountable transportation funding, attracted a clamor of interest — $57 billion in applications were filed for the $1.5 billion pot, including a bid to jump-start New York’s long-planned Moynihan Station.

Given that Obama administration officials already have their TIGER evaluation process in place and are almost certain to turn down bids from otherwise worthy projects, Congress could easily expand the grant program as part of any front-loaded infrastructure stimulus.

Prioritizing employment and sustainability in the selection of transportation projects, rather than the same old funding formulas, would be a potent down payment on future federal reforms.

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