On May 1, New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson wrote the president of the United States asking him to re-consider the $2 billion for bus and rail transportation that was taken out of the original stimulus package.
The stimulus bill, as it exists, allows for $6.9 billion to rebuild existing transportation facilities. Thompson's point is that there is a middle-income population that - even with the stimulus package as it stands - will face rising fares. "The need for Federal operating funding is compelling," wrote Thompson. A letter to the president is a big “ask” to a big guy, but the city is in tough times. And this city has been good to the president.
It's important to point out that Thomson is in the middle of a campaign challenging Mayor Michael Bloomberg. If a boost comes from Washington, it certainly looks as though his plea was effective. So, it's not bad politics, but the transit issue is a major one for both Bloomberg and Thompson, and the city benefits if they just happen to be competing to get something done about fares.
The advantage we have as New Yorkers, in this case, is that we are set up to receive stimulus money and many cities are not. The turnaround time for this money is fast. Cities need to show what they are going to use the money for and why. The process of requesting the money, submitting plans, and actually receiving it is about two months. That is quick. There is little time for community debates and other muddy processes.
This is where responsible policy is so important. Missouri for example, asked for $750 million, but nothing for St. Louis, the largest city in the state. Seattle was left out of Washington State's original request as well. Cities need to be smart too. Bridgeport, Connecticut, requested $1 billion in stimulus funding from Connecticut. Really? One billion dollars? The entire state of Connecticut is only receiving $600 million for the entire state. The president knew this would happen when he warned mayors to manage their money wisely or he would “call them out.”
Good governance means matching this federal money - or stimulus - with responsible planning. You might remember the bridge accident in Minnesota in August of 2007, where 13 people died. The bridge collapsed. A year later, a new bridge was completely operational. In one year! The state of Minnesota changed their bidding process. They allowed the contracting company to design the bridge - instead of having bureaucrats volley ideas back and forth (Freedom Tower, anyone?). The contracting company was offered extra money to finish early, and the result was a non-stop effort to get the bridge built.
Minnesota also completely closed that artery of traffic, which makes you wonder if the NYC policy of “close one lane at a time” (which drags the process on for years) is really worth it. Instead, it might be worth closing the entire road - and re-routing traffic - and getting it done quicker, saving time in labor hours and overtime.
It was an innovate idea that Minnesota put into play, and it worked. We owe it to our country, as it is shelling out such money in stimulus funding, to try to find new and innovative ways to save money. The I-35 bridge was under construction in less than three months after it tragically fell. Compare that to the Freedom Tower, which has done nothing more than change its name to World Trade Center One, in eight years.
Here is hoping that we wisely use all that we have coming our way, because there is a good chance we will not get more federal attention until things get better economically for the country.