President Obama’s economic stimulus program might be considered ‘green,’ but it’s still got a big streak of gray.
The $785 billion spending bill that Obama signed Tuesday, shortly after he toured the sparkling solar-paneled roof of the Denver Museum, will save or create 3.5 million jobs over the next two years, according to the White House. Environmental groups, happy about the sharp departure from Bush administration policies, say up to 1.5 million or 40 percent of the jobs created by the unprecedented legislation will be “green” — meaning they will contribute to decreasing energy consumption, lowering oil demand and switching to renewable sources.
But the carbon-based reality of the new president’s spending scheme was illuminated just after Obama signed the legislation. Within minutes, Missouri’s Department of Transportation became the first governmental entity to actually tap the stimulus money. The state announced it was using the new federal money to fund an $8.5 million project to replace a bridge in rural Tuscambia. The Obama stimulus program, it turns out, will also save or create hundreds of thousands of jobs that might be called “gray” jobs — positions with less environmentally friendly results, such as new road construction that encourages the use of carbon-fueled vehicles.
In fact, a review of the energy and transportation provisions of the stimulus program reveals a spending program that is much “grayer” than most media coverage has suggested, with up to a quarter of all the jobs created under the program likely to come from highway and road construction that do nothing to reduce fossil fuel consumption or protect the environment — and may actually encourage traffic, sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions. While “green” groups are happy with the Obama program, so is the highway lobby.
The Obama program authorizes $27.5 billion in spending authorized for highways and bridges, 50 percent more than the $18.9 billion that Environment America, a Washington-based coalition of state advocacy groups, says will go to environmentally friendly transportation purposes. The road construction money is most likely to go to 20th-century freeways and suburban thoroughfares that enable carbon-fueled cars, gas-guzzling Hummers and long-distance truckers to move from factory to mall to office park to subdivision more easily.
That money will pay for “increasing or improving capacity in places where people need it,” says Tony Dorsey, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The vast majority of Americans, Dorsey points out accurately, rely on private transportation for work and leisure. It is only natural, he says, that “the lion’s share [of funding] go where the greatest need is.”
And if the Federal Highway Administration is right, that funding will generate lots of jobs. That agency’s oft-cited formula holds that every $1.2 billion in infrastructure spending generates approximately 35,000 jobs. At that rate, the Obama program would create 802,000 road construction jobs — more than half the 1.5 million “green” jobs predicted by Environment America and almost a quarter of the total 3.5 million jobs saved or created that the White House anticipates.
Such predictions are open to question. Robert Pollin, economics professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, a prominent advocate of “green” jobs programs, questions the Federal Highway Administration’s formula. He said his research suggests that traditional highway and road work creates 19 jobs per $1 million spent, or 22,800 jobs per $1.2 billion, about a third less than the government estimate.
A lot depends on what happens in the next few weeks as the departments of transportation in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico decide which projects should be prioritized. The DOTs, as they are known, will have a central role in deciding whether the Obama stimulus program turns out to be “green” or “gray.”
“Once the money starts flowing,” says Tony Dorsey, “it’s going to be spent awfully fast.”
Some environmentalists worry that bureaucratic inertia will generate more new roads, not a 21st-century infrastructure.
“Most stimulus project lists from state DOTs prioritize new highways while paying relatively little attention to repairing crumbling bridges and roads and even less emphasis on forward-looking transportation options,” such as public transit and the the country’s major inter-city rail network, wrote Phineas Baxandall of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in a recent paper.
The Missouri DOT makes no bones that roads and bridges are its priority. According to a press release, the state expects to receive $637 million for road and bridge projects, more than four times as much as the estimated $150 million it will receive to address air, rail, transit, waterway and pedestrian projects. Baxandall surveyed 38 state DOTs about their plans to spend stimulus money and found that 18 of them plan to spend more than 80 percent of the stimulus funds on new local streets. Only two, Illinois and New Hampshire, plan to spend more than half their infrastructure spending on transit, aviation, bicycle and pedestrian purposes.
The administration’s desire to pump money into the economy inherently conflicts with its “green” agenda, said Scott Bernstein, president the Center for Neighbhorhood Technology in Chicago, which promotes sustainable urban development.
“It’s hard for there not to be a lot of ‘gray’ jobs” in the stimulus package, he said in a telephone interview. Bernstein pointed to the repairs needed on I-94, a major highway running through the state of Illinois, as an example. “Is it ‘green’ to fix them?” he asked. “It’s greener than the alternative of building new roads. But it is still going to be a highway. Fixing the road will induce more traffic.
“If you take the money and spend it on an alternatives to motorized travel, things are going to be a lot cleaner,” Bernstein said. “But doing that optimally is not as quick” as fixing roads.
Despite the ‘gray’ streak in the stimulus program, most ‘green’ groups are happy with its overall color.
David Foster, director of the San Francisco-based Blue-Green Alliance, praised the program as “a true down payment on a new, ‘green’ economy.”
Environment America chimed in with a press release estimating the program will create 731,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector, including 165,000 in the solar industry. The solar panels that Obama viewed in Denver were installed by Namaste Solar, a Colorado-based firm, whose president told reporters earlier this week that he plans to add 20 employees because of the stimulus program.
Environmental America predicts provisions to expand weatherization assistance to homeowners and improve energy-efficiency of federal office buildings will create 488,850 new jobs. Spending on mass transit and high-speed rail projects, the Washington-based group says, will sustain another 388,120 jobs, they say.
Pollin also questions these assumptions. The putative employment benefits of weatherization are based on a Department of Energy (DOE) finding that $1 million spent on programs to caulk, winterize and insulate low-income homes creates 52 direct jobs and 23 indirect jobs for every $1 million spent
“That figure is not realistic,” says Pollin. He says his research shows that if the government spends $700,000 on energy-efficiency and $300,000 renewable energy programs, the $1 million will generate approximately 17 new jobs. That’s two-thirds less than the DOE estimate.
Pollin’s lower estimates of job creation may disappoint liberals who already fear the Obama program will not be big enough to blunt the deepest recession in decades. Whatever the estimates, there is no dispute that the Obama stimulus program is the largest infusion of money ever into the country’s weatherization, renewable energy and high-speed rail programs.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made sure that the U.S. high-speed rail endeavor received $8 billion. The expansion of the U.S. program to develop state-of-the-art rail systems in 11 regions across the country is one of the “greenest” features of the new bill, supporters say.
All told, the stimulus bill marks a decisive change in traditional “gray”/”green” spending priorities, says Dan Weiss of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
Under current spending plans, roads and bridges enjoy an 83 percent to 17 percent spending advantage over transit, according to Weiss. The stimulus bill, by contrast, authorizes $29 billion for highway spending and $17.1 billion for other forms of transit, a ratio of 63 to 37 percent. In other words, road spending still has an advantage but it is smaller.
The narrowing gap, he says, is proof that “the ‘green’ energy agenda is very much on track.” Meanwhile, the enduring ‘gray’ reality of carbon-centric public policy endures.