How well did Iowa use transportation stimulus money?

Last week the non-profit organization Smart Growth America released a report on "how successful states have been in creating jobs with their flexible $26.6 billion of transportation funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA)." The report demonstrates that "the states that created the most jobs were the ones that invested [stimulus funds] in public transportation projects and projects that maintained and repaired existing roads and bridges. The states that spent their [stimulus] funds predominantly building new roads and bridges created fewer jobs."

Table 2 of the full report (pdf file) ranks the states in terms of percentage of road spending allocated to “system preservation” (road and bridge repair) versus building new capacity. Here Iowa did well, spending 93 percent of the stimulus road money on repair work. Iowa ranked 12th in this category; seven states and Washington, DC spent 100 percent of their ARRA road funds on repair.

Iowa didn’t score as well (30th place) on Smart Growth America’s list of states by the percent of stimulus transportation funding spent on public transit or non-motorized projects. Just 3.5 percent of Iowa’s transportation stimulus money went to such projects. That’s not surprising; it has long been difficult to persuade Iowa policy-makers to invest more in passenger transit, even though we have an aging population, and many older Americans want alternatives to driving. A long-range transportation funding plan adopted in 2008 didn’t require a single extra dollar to be spent on public transit in Iowa. The Republican-controlled Iowa House has already voted to scrap funding that would help bring passenger rail service to Iowa City, and Governor Terry Branstad didn’t include passenger rail funding in his draft budget for the next two years.

After the jump I’ve posted excerpts from the full report, which explain why repair and transit projects create more jobs per dollar spent. A memo about the recent opinion poll findings references below can be downloaded here (pdf).

Smart Growth America’s latest study didn’t assess the rate at which states turned around their stimulus transportation funding to create jobs. A 2009 study by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee showed that Iowa was the second-best state in terms of allocating stimulus road funds quickly. At the end of July 2009, 85.1 percent of the $358 million Iowa received for highway and bridge projects was under contract, and 74.9 percent was for projects already underway. Those percentages were more than double the national average.  

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Speak up for wiser investments in transportation

I learned from 1000 Friends Of Iowa that the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization are seeking public input on two important issues.

The DOT is finalizing the Statewide Public Transportation Study and will make recommendations to the state legislature in December. Officials want to hear from Iowans about:

   * Baseline level of service for public transportation in Iowa

   * Gap analysis between baseline service and public transportation demands of Iowans.

   * Transportation services needed to close these gaps.

   * The additional cost of these services.

   * Addressing Iowa’s energy conservation goals.

   * The range of possible funding concepts to address service needs.

   * Draft findings of the study to date.

You can comment on any of these issues at public meetings in Centerville, Sioux City, Des Moines, Iowa City, Bettendorf, or Waterloo on September 15-17 (event details are after the jump). Alternatively, you can submit comments through an online survey at

Anyone with an opinion on how to improve Iowa’s passenger transportation should let the DOT know. You do not have to be an expert or policy wonk. Remember, public transit is not just for big city residents. An express bus or vanpool that takes people from a smaller town to work in a nearby larger city saves passengers money while reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Last year the weekly Cityview profiled Winterset resident Ann Pashek, who saves thousands of dollars a year through the Des Moines Area Transit Authority’s Rideshare program.

Meanwhile, the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is hosting the last series of public input meetings on the Horizon Year 2035 Metropolitan Transportation Plan. They need to hear from central Iowa residents who are concerned about land use, air quality and global warming.

Although reducing vehicle miles driven is a critical element of any plan to address greenhouse gas emissions, the DMAMPO’s plan for the next 25 years involves 341 projects that, if completed, would increase vehicle miles traveled in our region by 33 percent (by the DMAMPO’s own calculations). 1000 Friends of Iowa adds:

The study also indicated that despite increases in [vehicle miles traveled], cleaner vehicles and fuels will result in continued reductions in vehicle pollutant emissions.  Gasoline was used in their project model.  However, when ethanol was used the increase in CO2 was 66% higher.  DNR Air Quality Division has studies which conclude that emissions with ethanol are substantially higher.   It seems this plan will not reduce VMTs or promote cleaner air.

The DMAMPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) is hosting the final series of public input meetings to receive input and comments on the HY 2035 MTP final draft. You must tell the DMAMPO that Central Iowans want to concentrate more transportation dollars on alternatives which will promote the responsible use of our states resources, land water and air. This is the most important series of meetings, please mark your calendars, plan to attend and make your opinion count!

The DMAMPO meetings are on September 15 and 16 at the North Side Library in Des Moines. Event details are in the 1000 Friends of Iowa action alert, which I’ve posted after the jump. That also includes talking points as well as contact information for those who prefer to submit written comments to the DMAMPO. Anyone can send a comment; you do not have to have attended a public meeting.

On a related note, today is the last day to submit a comment urging the DNR to protect water quality in Iowa’s cleanest lakes and streams. Please take a minute to send an e-mail to the right DNR officials.

So much policy that affects our lives is made below the radar. If I weren’t involved with 1000 Friends of Iowa, I would never have heard of these discussions about transportation priorities. If I weren’t involved with the Iowa Environmental Council and the Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter, I would not have heard of the debate over water quality rules either. I encourage you to join some non-profit organizations that are active on matters important to you. You will become much more informed than if you rely solely on the mainstream media.

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Iowa DOT seeking input on passenger transportation funding

I received an action alert from 1000 Friends of Iowa about six important public meetings next week:

The Iowa DOT is presenting Iowans with a golden opportunity to encourage sustainable transportation and land-use before April ends. Whether you feel we need more bike-to-work lanes, passenger rail options, or goals to address climate change – this is your chance to be heard. Six meetings are being held across the state to seek the public’s input on transportation needs.  […] The Statewide Passenger Transportation Funding Study is seeking your input to identify gaps between current public transit, carpool/vanpool programs, intercity bus and rail services, and what you and your neighbors believe are transportation needs.  Using the information from these meetings and through other sources, plans will be made to address Iowa’s future transportation plans.

Event details for the meetings in Ames, Atlantic, Ottumwa, Mason City, Cedar Rapids and Cherokee are after the jump.

Please spread the word among Iowans who would like to see more investment in public transportation and alternatives to driving. You don’t have to be an expert to speak or submit written comments at one of these meetings. Just say a few words about where Iowa’s passenger transportation is lacking and why you’d like to see it improved.

Remember, public transit is not just for big city residents. An express bus or vanpool that takes people from a smaller town to work in a nearby larger city saves riders money while reducing oil usage and greenhouse gas emissions. Last year the weekly Cityview profiled Winterset resident Ann Pashek, who uses the Des Moines Area Transit Authority’s Rideshare program. Taking the van to and from Pashek job in Des Moines saves her thousands of dollars a year, and she can use the commute to “complete work or pay bills that would normally detract from valuable family time.”

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Open thread on good news and bad news in the stimulus bill

It didn’t take long for representatives and senators to reach a compromise on a $790 billion stimulus bill. Chris Bowers posted a good summary of the bill at Open Left. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s selling point is that the bill that came out of conference creates more jobs than the original Senate bill while spending less money than the original House bill.

I don’t believe the bill is large enough to do the job it’s supposed to do, especially since it still contains costly measures that won’t stimulate the economy much (such as fixing the alternative minimum tax, which hits high-income Americans).

I hope President Barack Obama will take a tougher line in future negotiations with Congress. He did too much pre-compromising with Republicans, to the detriment of the final bill. His original suggestion of an $800 billion price tag for the stimulus, seen by some as a “floor” that would increase when Congress got to work, became a “ceiling” above which any bill was viewed as too expensive.

He also included too many non-stimulative tax cuts in his original proposal to Congress. Predictably, Republicans demanded (and got) even more concessions, even though none of them voted for the bill in the House and only three voted for it in the Senate.

Bowers noticed one Q and A from Obama’s prime-time press conference the other night, which hints that the president learned a lesson about negotiating from this experience.

Bowers believes that “The deal isn’t perfect, but it is still probably the best piece of legislation to pass Congress in, oh, 15 or 16 years.”

David Sirota is also mostly pleased:

I’m not happy that the stimulus bill was made less stimulative by reactionary Republicans and embarrassingly incoherent Democrats. I’m also not happy that direct spending on infrastructure/social programs comprises a miniscule 4.6% of all the government funds spent to deal with this economic crisis. However, considering how far progressives have pushed the debate, I’d say the deal on the economic stimulus package is a huge victory.

Remember, only months ago, the incoming administration and the Congress were talking about passing a stimulus bill at around $350 billion. Remember, too, that Obama started out pushing a stimulus package chock full of odious tax cuts. Now, we’ve got a bill that’s $790 billion (including a sizable downpayment for major progressive priorities) and stripped of the worst tax cuts.

Your opinion of the stimulus may depend on which issues you care about most. Open Left user WI Dem noticed that the compromise bill included more funding for high-speed rail but less for urban public transit, which “has a far greater effect on CO2 [emissions] and on people’s daily lives.”

Via the twitter feed of Daily Iowan opinion writers, I found this piece by Climate Progress on “what’s green” in the stimulus compromise.

The Republican Party is already planning to run ads against 30 Democrats who will vote for the stimulus. It makes sense for the GOP to bet against the stimulus, because they won’t get credit if it succeeds, and their best hope for a comeback in the next election cycle is for Democrats to fail. The main risk for them is that if the stimulus package succeeds, the upcoming advertising campaign people could make more people remember that Republicans tried to stand in its way.

Speaking of Republican propaganda, contrary to what your wingnut friends may tell you, the stimulus bill does not earmark $30 million to save “Nancy Pelosi’s mouse.” It does include some funding for federal wetlands restoration, however.

UPDATE: TPM’s Elana Schor provides surprising proof that no politician is wrong 100 percent of the time. Apparently Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma got a $2 billion “clean coal” earmark out of the stimulus bill.

Greg Sargent explains how “Pelosi’s mouse” went from fabrication to talking point for right-wing television pundits.

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Borrow money for infrastructure, but fix what we have first

The highlight of Governor Chet Culver’s "condition of the state" address yesterday (video here and prepared text here) was a proposal to issue state bonds to borrow up to $700 million over the next few years:

Thousands of new jobs will be created, Culver said. Every $100 million spent on highway construction alone means more than 4,000 new jobs, he said.

“We’re cutting back on the day-to-day expenditures of state government,” Culver said in his Condition of the State speech this morning. “But, at the same time, we will be investing in bricks and mortar – to create jobs and keep our economy going.”

Culver said Iowa won’t need to raise taxes to pay for the plan. The state is in the position to issue bonds, which is essentially borrowing money. Existing gaming revenue would repay the bonds, he said.

Predictably, road industry lobbyists like the spending plans while expressing some doubts about the borrowing plans.

Republicans also don’t seem to like the bonding proposal, while statehouse Democrats think it’s a good idea. State Auditor David Vaudt, who may be a Republican candidate for governor in 2010, said he needed to study the details before expressing an opinion, but noted, “What we’ve got to remember is we’ve got to dedicate and set aside a piece of revenue stream to pay that principal and interest.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal made a great point:

Gronstal deflected Republican criticism by pointing out that [Senate Minority leader Paul] McKinley, in his opening day speech, talked about a business he once owned.

“He borrowed every nickel he could and leveraged himself as far as he could because he believed in his future. I believe in Iowa’s future. I believe it makes sense now to borrow money and move this state forward,” Gronstal said.

He added: “This is probably one of the best times in our history to go out and borrow money with a dedicated repayment stream. Do you own a home? Did it make sense for you to borrow money? Or did you just pay cash?”

Gronstal is absolutely right. Iowa has a triple-A bond rating, interest rates are fairly low, and creating jobs is essential to bringing the economy back. Two-thirds of our economy depends on consumer spending, and good jobs generate the money people then spend at businesses in their communities. Construction jobs tend to be good jobs too.

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, who is usually a deficit hawk, also likes the infrastructure bonding idea:

The money will be borrowed over the next few years, supervised by an oversight board and repaid with gambling profits, so no tax increases will be necessary. (If we have to have all this gambling in Iowa, wouldn’t it be nice to see something tangible in return?)

It will be the modern-day equivalent of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which built infrastructure we still use today, such as dams, sewers, parks and shelters. Previous American generations left us wonderful systems of interstates, canals, railroads, river locks and dams. What are we leaving our kids? Potholes, bridge collapses and sewers that pollute river ways.

Iowans are a frugal people. Perhaps we are too frugal. According to state Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald’s office, Moody’s Investors Service says Iowa’s per-capita level of public debt ranked 48th in the country last year. Iowa has $98 of state public debt per person. The national average of state debt is $1,158. You could double Iowa’s $98 of per-capita state debt to $200, and we would then rank 46th.

Culver should have told us that. Clearly, most other states saddle their citizens with more debt than is proposed here. And many are more attractive places to live, too, as our children attest when they leave for the better jobs and brighter lights elsewhere.

It’s funny to watch all these Republican legislators, who borrow all sorts of money to buy, expand or repair homes, businesses and farms, now turn prune-faced when Culver suggests doing the exact same thing in state government.

The Des Moines Register explained how Culver’s plan would work:

* Borrow $700 million in 20-year tax-exempt state revenue bonds

* Secure the bonds with about $56 million a year in gaming tax revenues

* Create a Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Authority to issue the bonds. It will be overseen by a five-member board.

* The authority would be administered and staffed by the Iowa Finance Authority.

How money will be spent:






mass transit



water quality and wastewater treatment improvements

flood control improvements

energy infrastructure

disaster-relief infrastructure

public buildings

Projects will be judged on:

Whether they are ready to proceed

How quickly the project can be started and completed

Number of jobs to be created by the project

Contribution to sustainability

On the whole, I support the idea. My main concern is that infrastructure money be spent on fixing what we already have, not on building every new road on developers’ wish lists. In the past, our legislators and state officials have focused too much on funding new roads instead of a balanced transportation policy.

The housing slump is likely to continue for at least two more years, and there is no reason to spend large sums to build new highway interchanges and major new roads through undeveloped farmland now. We should spend the money to fix stretches of existing major roads and highways and crumbling bridges, as well as on modes of transit that allow alternatives to driving. These projects will improve the quality of life for large numbers of Iowans while also creating jobs.

As for airports, I would only support spending money on needed repairs and improvements to existing airports. This is not the time to start building a bunch of small regional airports that would benefit a handful of corporate executives.

Culver emphasized that he did not plan to raise taxes, but Gronstal indicated that raising the state gas tax is still on the table.

I would like to hear more lawmakers talk about closing various tax loopholes that mainly benefit wealthy Iowans. The Iowa Policy Project has documented this and various other flaws in our current tax policies.

If you’ve got the time and the inclination, the governor’s official website has a video Culver showed during his address, called “In Deep Water: The Flood of 2008.” Iowa Public Television has House Minority leader Kraig Paulsen’s response to Culver’s address.

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Will Blue Dog power decline in the next Congress? (updated)

Many a bad bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives with the votes of Republicans and Democratic "Blue Dogs." These representatives call themselves "moderates" or "centrists," and you often find them voting with corporate interests, against the majority of the House Democratic caucus, when the chips are down.

This Washington Post article about the upcoming debate over an economic stimulus bill cites Representative Baron Hill of Indiana as “incoming co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of 51 fiscally conservative House Democrats.”

Hill wants the economic stimulus money to go toward road and bridge construction, whereas others would like to see more of the money spent on “green jobs” and infrastructure projects that are more environmentally friendly than building new roads. Progressives would like to spend the transportation money on fixing our existing roads and bridges while expanding public transit and rail.

Friends of the Earth has launched a campaign to “keep the economic stimulus clean”:

Transportation in the U.S. is responsible for 30 percent of our global warming pollution and 70 percent of our oil consumption. We cannot solve the energy and climate challenge without making our transportation system far cleaner and more efficient.

President-elect Obama and the congressional leadership are moving quickly to pass an economic stimulus package that creates green jobs with a new, clean energy infrastructure. Public transportation, smart growth and green transportation alternatives are a crucial part of this effort.

Unfortunately, the road-building lobby is attempting to hijack this bill and divert billions of dollars to the construction of new, unnecessary roads, highways and bridges that would deepen our nation’s dependence on oil and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Click here for more details about the economic and environmental consequences of letting new road construction dominate the stimulus bill.

Getting back to the title of this diary, Matt Stoller read that Washington Post piece about debates over the stimulus and was intrigued to learn that Hill claims 51 members for the Blue Dog Coalition:

Last session, there were 49 Blue Dogs, and during the election season the caucus continually bragged about how they would add a substantial number of new members in 2009.  Still, their PAC didn’t give to very many Democratic candidates, two Blue Dogs lost reelection, and a bunch of their candidate prospects lost.  If it’s true that the Blue Dogs have only increased their number by 2, and I’m not sure it is, then they really are far weaker in the House than they were from 2006-2008.  There are 257 Democrats in the next Congress and 178 Republicans.  While the Blue Dogs are still a swing bloc, they only have 11 votes to give.  That’s not very many, considering that this number assumes all Republicans always vote with the Blue Dogs.  If Republicans split off from their caucus on certain votes, even small numbers of Republicans, then Blue Dog priorities are far less likely to matter overall.

Leonard Boswell (IA-03) is the only Iowa Democrat in the Blue Dog group. Once the new House convenes, it will be interesting to see how the Blue Dogs compare in number to the Progressive Caucus, which had 71 members in the last Congress, including Dave Loebsack (IA-02). My hunch is that the Progressive Caucus will add a lot more new members than the Blue Dogs.

After the new year I’ll try to find out how many members Bruce Braley (IA-01) was able to recruit to the Populist Caucus he is forming.

Whether or not Blue Dog power declines in the House, it may be on the rise in the Senate. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana is setting up a Blue Dog caucus in the upper chamber. Although Senate Majority leader Harry Reid’s spokesman claims Reid is “upbeat” about Bayh’s plans, it’s likely that the Senate Blue Dogs will collude with Republicans to obstruct Barack Obama’s agenda.

Matthew Yglesias advanced a very plausible hypothesis about Bayh’s move:

With Republicans out of power, the GOP can’t really block progressive change in exchange for large sums of special interest money. That creates an important market niche for Democrats willing to do the work. It was a good racket for the House Blue Dogs in 2007-2008 and there’s no reason it couldn’t work for Senate analogues over the next couple of years.

Let’s hope the memory of the 1994 Republican landslide will induce conservative Democrats not to block most of Obama’s agenda. The Democrats who ran Congress in 1993 and 1994 wanted to show Bill Clinton who was boss, but the effect was to make Democrats look incompetent, depressing Democratic base turnout in 1994 and turning swing voters toward the Republicans.

On the other hand, I would not underestimate the Blue Dogs’ willingness to do what big money wants, whether or not it’s good for the Democratic Party.

Share any relevant thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: Kagro X notes that the Progressive Caucus seems to be a more cohesive voting bloc than the Blue Dogs, which is surprising.

Meanwhile, Chris Bowers argues persuasively than the Blue Dogs have achieved little on their alleged signature issue of “fiscal responsibility”:

If the Blue Dogs only exist in order to promote “fiscal responsibility,” isn’t it pretty clear that, rather than getting their way, they have actually failed across the board over the last eight years? From the Bush tax cuts, to soaring deficits, to making exceptions for war, to making exceptions for bailouts, to making exceptions to stimulus packages, the Blue Dogs have completely and utterly failed at their stated primary policy area and done so at every available opportunity.

The only actual successes of the Blue Dogs appear to be the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] re-write and blank check funding for Iraq. It is notable that 38 of the 47 Blue Dogs voted in favor of both these measures, which jointly render a member a “Bush Dog” in Open Left’s terminology. Given that 70 House members voted in favor of both those measures, the Democratic defectors on those issues were clearly spearheaded by the Blue Dogs.

Mainly, I am impressed that Blue Dogs keep earning press that describes them as fiscally responsible and wildly powerful, when the record shows otherwise. When offered opportunities to actually clamp down on spending over the last two years, the Blue Dogs have balked at every turn, favoring blank check funding for Iraq, blank check funding for the bailout, and massive funding for the economic stimulus. That a group of House members can do all of this and still be described as both “fiscally responsible” and “powerful” is pretty impressive. Maybe what we progressives really need is to hire the Blue Dogs’ PR people.

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