One of the most significant measures currently being applied to stimulus spending is the speed with which dollars are put to work. We get that. It doesn’t stimulate the economy very much today, to spend money next year. But there’s a delicate balance here. The Recovery Act also suggests that states should be looking toward the long-term benefits of the dollars spent. And that’s not easy to do, if the primary goal is to crank the dollars out as quickly a possible.
Perhaps the best example of this tension is the October back and forth between Congressman James Oberstar, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and former Governor of Virginia Tim Kaine. Oberstar complained that Virginia was the slowest of the states in getting its transportation funding out into the field. Kaine responded that his state was different from others, in that it was using its ARRA money to create new projects, not just to keep old ones going. What’s more, he pointed to the careful thoughtful process Virginia uses to make sure its infrastructure dollars are well spent.
We asked some transportation officials in Virginia about the exchange, and were struck by something that chief financial officer Reta Busher said regarding the challenges of transportation management, “The short term nature of what we are dealing with is troublesome in a business where a project can take anywhere from 18 months to 5 years.”
We think there’s an important point in having a range of different measures. If you concentrate too much on speed, then quality may be sacrificed, as we wrote in a column in Governing magazine. With a range of measures, no one element gets an inordinate or inappropriate amount of focus. It’s fine to measure speed, but that information also has to be weighted against how well the services are working — or what the dollars are accomplishing — in the long run.