President-elect Obama's promised national stimulus plan has put a shine in the eyes of state and local government officials. As excited as children, they are making lists of all the things they will build if they can get a slice of those hundreds of billions of dollars. But Obama's twin goals of creating new jobs and kicking off green initiatives aren't supported by many of the items on the area lists. Officials have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink, apparently without regard to payback to the economy, and creativity and vision on a scale to match the president-elect's are depressingly absent.
Dog parks, basketball courts, swimming pools, walking trails, traffic video cameras, "textured" crosswalks, tennis centers, a duck pond and even a rehabilitation program for prostitutes are among the thousands of projects on lists created by cities and counties around the nation, without any indication of how they would create significant numbers of new jobs or reduce man's impact on the environment.
In the Tampa Bay region, the lists include new mast-arm poles for traffic lights in St. Petersburg, a new utility meter reading system in Pasco County, expanding the landfill in Hernando County, relocating airport surveillance radar at Tampa International Airport, renovating a community sports complex in Clearwater, and replacing traffic signals throughout Hillsborough County.
The Tampa Bay lists also include hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation projects, some of them desperately needed and legitimate stimulus ideas. But it is difficult to envision how some others — for example, paving dirt streets in Pasco County or improving a residential street in Clearwater — would spark economic recovery.
It appears that some local governments simply transferred their own, already approved capital improvement projects onto the stimulus list, as if the Obama plan were some sort of welfare-for-government program. Perhaps that is in part because the president-elect wants shovel-ready projects, but it makes no sense to use the stimulus dollars for projects that have potential local funding, especially if they don't meet the federal program's goals to create jobs, repair or replace vital infrastructure and reduce the carbon footprint.
Most disappointing on the wish lists is the scarcity of creative and visionary projects that could help position local communities to meet tomorrow's challenges. Relatively few projects would retrofit buildings to make them energy efficient, upgrade aging communications infrastructure, boost light rail and other innovative transportation projects, or fund retraining of workers to prepare them for success in the new global economy.
The Obama plan should not be regarded as a goody bag into which state and local governments dip to satisfy their desire for more ballparks or fancier traffic signals. Every project should be examined for its potential to create new jobs and contribute in fundamental ways to the economic recovery.