Small road projects neither bold nor bad stimulus

The Denver Post reported Saturday that the $400 million in federal stimulus funds Colorado will be spending in the next year or so on roads will be used to pay for work on “small jobs” instead of on “tackling the state’s most pressing roads needs,” like expanding I-70.

The Post’s regretful story has the tone right but the reasoning wrong, evincing the same kind of shortsightedness that dogs the stimulus program in general.

Given the resources available and compared to plans being funded in other states, Colorado is going about stimulus road spending in a smart way, taking an approach any good doctor would appreciate: addressing critical problems but careful above all not to do any harm.

Colorado Department of Transportation Director Russ George lays it out for the Post reporter:

George says there just isn’t enough money to pay for the really big projects… So Colorado is focusing its limited dollars on relatively small scale projects. Transportation funding has been tight in recent years, and only the smaller jobs are ready to go.

George insisted that by clearing stimulus projects costing several million dollars apiece, officials can free up money later for bigger projects.

What Colorado is doing is putting people to work immediately, making sure dilapidated bridges don’t collapse under rush-hour traffic and saving money for later large-scale projects.

What Colorado is not doing is building bridges to nowhere and catering to the now-outdated sprawl economy by laying highways to yet-to-be-built tract-house exurban communities.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there’s not more money and greater will to embark on truly transformative infrastructure projects, like setting down full-metro-region high-efficiency mass-transit grids, for example, or alternative-energy fueling stations all around the country.

People have called on President Barack Obama to seize the moment of economic crisis and general readiness to accept change to remake U.S. society through infrastructure the way the post-war highway system did. The regret is that it doesn’t seem possible to make that kind of change.

We’ll certainly find the money and the political will to widen I-70 some other time.