Report: 21st Century Transportation

Spending the Stimulus

How California Can Put Thousands Back to Work & Jump-start a 21st Century Transportation System
Released by: CALPIRG Education Fund

As families all over America struggle to make ends meet, officials are under pressure to make the best use of the federal stimulus money soon to pour into state capitals. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is a critical opportunity for state and local officials to help those families by building a stronger economy now and jump-starting the completion of a 21st century transportation system.

ARRA offers a menu of economically beneficial transportation projects

California will receive $ 2.57 billion for surface transportation through ARRA. The citizens of California want to use this money to stimulate the economy and to advance long-term goals. This report provides a 20-item menu for how California can use ARRA stimulus dollars to make the transportation investments that aggressively address the state’s pressing needs. It offers previously unavailable information for citizens and reporters to use in asking whether state officials are choosing the best available ways to invest California’s transportation stimulus money.

Specifically, the report is a guide to 20 types of projects that states and cities can fund right now to:

• Create jobs that advance a quick and lasting economic recovery; and

• Reduce household transportation costs, traffic congestion, oil dependency, greenhouse emissions, and vulnerability to gas prices.

This report highlights the tremendous opportunity California has to fund projects that repair crumbling roadways and bridges, provide low cost transportation choices, retrofit streets for safe walking and biking, advance energy independence, and generally put thousands of Americans to work during the current economic crisis and in order to jump-start a 21st century transportation system.

ARRA transportation funding can be spent on just about any surface transportation project—not just highways

Contrary to widespread misconceptions, no ARRA funding is specifically designated for new highway construction.

Funding under the largest ARRA transportation spending category, the “Surface Transportation Program” (STP), often misnamed the “highway” program, can be used in a wide-variety of ways as indicated in this report. By sending the bulk of transportation stimulus spending through STP, the ARRA gives California many job-creating investment options other than building new highways. STP funding can also be used to make long-overdue repairs to roads and unsafe bridges, upgrade and expand public transit, improve intercity rail, make streets safer, among other options.

Smart Growth America and CALPIRG issued this report in part because:

• Taxpayers and city and state leaders need to know what the stimulus money is actually eligible to be spent on.
• While early transportation spending lists from state DOTs around the country show plans for heavy spending on new highways, there are many other options available to states that create more jobs, faster.

• At a time when driving is declining, transit ridership is surging, and repair backlogs are growing, heavy investment in new highways is unlikely to be the best investment in most places.

The street system is not complete everywhere, and new highways may be good investments in some places. But a state decision-making process that excludes everything but highways because of a misunderstanding or mischaracterizing the law, and/or that leans on new highways before fixing the highways it is already responsible for, almost certainly guarantees that money will be wasted and community needs unmet.

The public agrees: According to a poll released in January by the National Association of Realtors, an overwhelming 80 percent of Americans believe it is more important that the stimulus funding include efforts to repair existing highways and public transit rather than to build new highways. The poll clearly shows that the vast majority of Americans believe restoring existing roads and bridges and expanding transportation options should take precedence over building new roads.

ARRA can help California create jobs faster through repair

For decades, state officials have neglected the backlog of highway and bridge repairs. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 13.8 % of the bridges in California are “structurally deficient” and 37% of the state’s roads are in “poor condition.”  Under these circumstances, there’s no excuse for not giving top stimulus-spending priority to dramatically reducing this dangerous repair backlog. It’s simply not possible to build a 21st century transportation system on the foundation of a crumbling mid-20th century infrastructure.

A fix-it-first approach is also the best job-creation policy. A 2009 University of Massachusetts economic study demonstrates that road and bridge repairs create 16% more jobs per dollar than new highways projects. And, in general, most kinds of repair projects are exempt from, or otherwise do not need to go through, the same review process that new construction projects do. Repair projects are, generally, shovel-ready.

ARRA can help California create more jobs by responding to demand for public transit

At the same time, California also needs to respond more aggressively to record-breaking transit ridership. ARRA funds present a special opportunity for jump-starting public transportation because such projects are often held back by state and federal rules that require ambitious levels of state matching funds. ARRA funds require no state or local match. The same 2009 University of Massachusetts economic study demonstrates that road and bridge repairs create 31% more jobs per dollar than new highways projects.

Six of the twenty project categories in this report illustrate ARRA-eligible ways to upgrade and expand the state’s public transit systems. As many as one out of every five of our transit vehicles are now out of service. Expanded and upgraded transit systems, and bicycle and pedestrian routes, would allow hundreds of thousands more people to get to work in the morning—and would also bring them home safely in time for dinner. The University of Massachusetts study showed that public transit expansion also creates more jobs than new highway construction.


This report shows how California can take advantage of the special opportunity offered by ARRA funding not only to upgrade existing roads and bridges to 21st century status, but also to invest in public transit expansion, reduce congestion, and link transportation and community planning. With these projects in mind, California can seize this opportunity to spend tax dollars on the projects that will address real-time problems of greatest concern to the taxpayers. 

A January 2009 national opinion survey by the National Association of Realtors found that “80 percent believe it’s more important that a stimulus plan include efforts to repair existing highways and build public transit rather than build new highways.” (

The ARRA funding can go a long way toward enabling California to move beyond its outdated, mid-20th century transportation system, but only if wise spending decisions are made by state and local officials in the coming weeks and months. It’s now up to them to make the transportation investments needed to complete a 21st century system. They can jump-start that process by spending the ARRA transportation funding on the twenty types of projects documented in Spending the Stimulus.

California examples

Following the description of the 20 ways California can spend and invest this money, are projects from California that illustrate the flexibility California has to repair, build, and invest in projects that will create jobs today and save money in the long run.

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