How green is that highway in the stimulus?

Don't repeat the mistakes that made America dependent on the car, says one critic of Obama's recovery plan.

Published January 6, 2009 4:25PM (EST)

Dean Baker asks a good question in an Op-Ed published Monday in the U.K. Guardian: Where's the sense in rebuilding or extending the U.S. highway network if one of our national goals, going forward, is to encourage Americans to drive less? There's been much talk about pursuing "green" goals through the stimulus package, but wouldn't a massive highway infrastructure upgrade just exacerbate our existing fatal dependence on the automobile?

While not all highways are bad, highways that promote the pattern of sprawl that we have seen in many metropolitan areas over the last 30 years are bad.

We should not be making it easier for people to live long distances from their jobs, so that they have lengthy commutes each day. This would directly counteract efforts in other areas to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Baker suggests alternative measures, such as subsidies to local public transportation agencies allowing them to lower fares, or directly paying Americans to turn in their old, polluting cars.

Even better would be a government push to fund a massive public transportation infrastructure upgrade, but that's the kind of project that won't happen quickly. And right now, the emphasis appears to be on "shovel ready" projects that can be set in motion immediately.

Which means that, despite the green contradictions, we're likely to do what is easiest, and that means building more roads.

Over at Slate, Eliot Spitzer wrings his own hands. He's not fundamentally opposed to repaving roads, but worries that such projects are insufficiently "transformative."

The "off the shelf" infrastructure projects that can be funded immediately and provide immediate demand-side stimulus are almost by definition not the transformative investments we really need. Paving roads, repairing bridges that need refurbishing, and accelerating existing projects are all good and necessary, but not transformative. These projects by and large are building or patching the same economy with the same flaws that got us where we are. Our concern should be that as we look for the next great infrastructure project to transform our economy, we might rebuild the Erie Canal and find ourselves a century behind technologically.

According to news reports on Tuesday, Obama has set a six-week deadline for getting his economic recovery plan passed. By that point, everyone with access to a megaphone and a keyboard will have submitted their two cents as to why his plan is fundamentally flawed and what it should really include. Even if you grant that much of the criticism is warranted, you've still got to wonder, has there ever been this much carping from all quarters before a president actually started governing?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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