Are shovel-ready infrastructure projects a higher priority than information technology?
Trillion has become the new denominator in public finance, from raising the debt ceiling to rescuing Wall Street to economic stimulus for the rest of the economy. State and local government budget writers began penciling in stimulus fund placeholders from the federal government to balance their budgets, hoping the new bucket of money would materialize.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors made a list of 18,750 local infrastructure projects from 779 cities of all sizes. The collection amounts to infrastructure investments worth $149.8 billion that carry a promise of 1.6 million jobs. All the projects were ready to go or in other words, "shovel ready."
By the conference's accounting, the top categories of submitted requests are: transportation ($53.9 billion); energy and green jobs ($30.5 billion); community development ($26.5 billion); and water and sewer ($23.5 billion).
The Center for Digital Government studied the conference's report to see how IT fared. It identified 107 IT-specific projects valued at $287,977,622 that promise to create 2,092 jobs.
In this subgroup, nine cities have as-yet-unfunded plans for broadband network installations - some for public safety, libraries and citywide access. The projects have a combined $106 million price tag and bring the prospect of 800 new jobs and new public wireless infrastructure.
The list's other 98 IT-specific projects are a grab bag of things that haven't attracted local funding, but together represent a $182 million need that's gone begging. Unlike the broadband projects, these projects have a decidedly blocking and tackling feel to them. There are requests to replace and upgrade aging hardware and software for police departments, libraries and schools. (One small Wisconsin city's transit system sought a new source to pay for the routine replacement of copiers and fax machines.) Add uninterrupted power supply here, computer-aided dispatch there, automated records management in three cities and synchronized traffic flow in two others. Most requestors could use rugged laptops. And many requests were to put fresh technology in the construction or renovation of computer labs, baseball parks, storefront police stations and water-treatment facilities.
Without commenting on these requests' merits, the list would back fill existing budget holes and operational needs. Economists remind us that spending on transactional stuff can help get the economy moving again. They even concede there's some social good in paying someone to dig a hole and a second person to fill it back up. That may be true as far as it goes, but does it go far enough?
In commenting on the general merits of the stimulus, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told NPR, "They're talking about a government that's still [$1.5 trillion]. We ought to then have a smart, [$1.5 trillion] government, not a dumb one. Lincoln built the transcontinental railroads, one of the key factors in the rising Republican majority of his generation. Theodore Roosevelt built the Panama Canal. Eisenhower proposed the interstate highway system as a national defense act ... There are smart things government should do."
Gingrich isn't often invoked on this page, but his warning may well be prescient in this year of infrastructure investments, "There's a huge jump from the transcontinental railroad president to a pothole presidency," he said. "What I've seen so far is a tendency to have relatively tiny projects that have no strategic impact on the country's long-term future."