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Smart Stimulus

December 17, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
The judges' decisions are in for the "Stupid Stimulus Contest" conducted by the ultra-conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota, and it apparently put quite a strain on our friends from the far right fringe. "The selection process was difficult because almost any stimulus spending could be labeled stupid," the Merry Pranksters announced last week.

Oh, really? Keeping teachers educating our children and health professionals caring for the sick is stupid? Fixing crumbling roads and bridges is stupid? Countering the damage of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is stupid?

On Planet Taxpayers League, it must be so, even though the Pranksters had to go pretty far afield to find all their contest winners, among them a Syracuse University sex study and a homeless prevention program for a New York town that the Taxpayers League assures us "does not have a homeless problem." The only Minnesota entry they singled out was a $316,000 grant to the state Board of Arts to preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector.

It isn't all that hard to cherry-pick a few seemingly wasteful elements in any spending program, either by government or private enterprise. But the Taxpayers League's choices amount to only $1.1 million, which is one-seven-thousandth of one percent of the entire American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It's no microcosm of the whole $787 billion package.

How about a contest for the smartest stimulus projects? I'd nominate the shovel-ready transportation work, which totals 6 percent of the entire program but nearly 25 percent of the jobs directly supported so far, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. That's smart when nearly 20 percent of U.S. construction workers remain idled and the nation still faces 10 percent overall unemployment and a $430 billion backlog of needed transportation projects.

Minnesota got $500 million in stimulus funding for roads and bridges, making a 1 percent dent in the $50 billion revenue shortfall the Department of Transportation projects for state highways over the next 20 years. Not even the Pranksters could summon the gumption to call that stupid.

Taxpayers League President Phil Krinkie did take a potshot at a bicycle and pedestrian path in Minneapolis that's getting $485,000 in stimulus funding. It will never be used enough to justify the cost, he said. Oh, really? The Cedar Lake Trail extension will connect St. Louis Park with downtown Minneapolis via the rail transit station next door to the new Twins ballpark, a locale that will be among Minnesota's busiest for foot traffic. The Metropolitan Council, hardly a socialist outfit, ranked the project highly for its intermodal connections.

But some conservatives see waste whenever a public infrastructure dollar is spent for anything other than motorways. The Cedar Lake Trail also showed up in a new report from U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona on allegedly stupid stimulus projects. That drew this sharp rebuke from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in his Fast Lane blog: "I guess a better bike connection to Minneapolis' central business district doesn't count as infrastructure to some folks."

Among the 100 projects criticized by Coburn and McCain were highway safety rest stops, street paving, lighthouse repairs, Amtrak equipment upgrades, nuclear waste cleanup, bridge maintenance, a police boat and helicopter and several more bike-walk improvements, including an historic Missouri River bridge being refurbished to connect extensive trails in Nebraska and South Dakota.

LaHood said bike trails are "a key ingredient in our livability initiative to allow people to live, work and get around without a car. We don't call that waste; we call it progress."

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