February 9, 2009


Why Shovel-Ready Infrastructure is Wrong (Right Now): The term "shovel-ready"—as in, infrastructure projects that are ready or almost ready to begin—has become a favorite of policy makers in recent weeks. As the Senate gets ready to vote on a stimulus bill, it looks like the idea has stuck: The latest bill gives only projects that are able to start construction within 90 days eligibility for funding from the $90 billion set aside for infrastructure. Here is why the shovel-ready mandate could make the infrastructure crisis worse. (Erik Sofge, February 5, 2009 , Popular Mechanics)

The term arrived with all the muscle and blue-collar authority of a bulldozer: “shovel-ready.” As in, infrastructure projects that are ready or almost ready to begin, the antithesis of some dimly imagined earmark or budget-sucking bridge to nowhere. Then-president-elect Obama used the term on a December 7th visit to NBC’s Meet the Press, describing the kinds of projects that would be supported by the upcoming economic stimulus bill. Soon the phrase was being repeated by policy-makers only an almost daily basis. Now the bill is here, with one version passed by the House, and another being debated by the Senate. “Shovel-ready” isn’t language used in the bill, but the House’s version, at least, does have an enforceable short-term focus: Only projects that are able to start construction within 90 days of selection are eligible for funding from the $90 billion set aside for infrastructure.

So what exactly is a shovel-ready project? As the Washington Post recently pointed out, the term “shovel-ready” may have been introduced in the 1990s by New York-based electric utility Niagara-Mohawk Power, which later became National Grid (it is the current owner of the URL shovelready.com). There are no specific parameters or requirements that define shovel readiness. But according to civil engineers, the idea behind this new buzzword could help scuttle the stimulus bill’s highly publicized, though secondary, goal of infrastructure reform. At issue is that 90-day restriction stipulated by Congress, an even narrower window than the bill’s original 180-day limit. “They’re well intentioned, and they know their infrastructure sucks, so they’re trying to do immediate reactive management to what is a very deep, endemic problem,” says Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you want to patch some potholes in the road, this is a good program. But if you’re hoping for anything long-term with this approach, throw away all hope. It can’t happen.”

The programs that would meet the bill’s 90-day restriction are, for the most part, an unappealing mix of projects that were either shelved after being fully designed and engineered, and have since become outmoded or irrelevant, or projects with limited scope and ambition. No one’s building a smart electric grid or revamping a water system on 90 days notice. The best example of a shovel-ready project, and what engineers believe could become the biggest recipient of the transportation-related portion of the bill’s funding, is road resurfacing—important maintenance work, but not a meaningful way to rein in a national infrastructure crisis. “In developing countries, there are roads that are so bad, they create congestion, because drivers are constantly forced to slow down,” says David Levinson, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s civil engineering department. “That’s not the case here. If the road’s a little bit rougher, drivers will feel it, but that’s not going to cause you to go any slower. So the economic benefit of those projects is pretty low.”

...if the term meant we should bury it.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2009 1:44 PM
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