Stimulus package-where are the plans?

Stimulus package: Good news and not so good news; and where are the plans

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters that “the Obama administration wants to rebuild America”.

Where is the plan for rebuilding America? At a program on the North Country of New York, a Chamber of Commerce rep from the North Country said a number of times, “we need a plan”. The other regions of New York State, the state itself and the nation also need a plan.

The good news is that the Obama administration is going to quickly advance a massive stimulus package to support much needed infrastructure projects. Fueling a failing economy and public infrastructure are good especially when infrastructure has been ignored for many decades.

The not so good news is the Obama administration intends to quickly advance without adequate land use, resource management and development plans this stimulus package targeted to real needs like refurbishing the existing power grid, existing sewage and water treatment facilities, repair roads and bridges and repair schools.

In the words of NYTimes columnist David Brook, the effect will not be “transformational” or bring “Americans together in new ways” after more than a half century of sprawl and decline of most of our cities. As Brooks goes on further to say, “the Obama infrastructure plan may freeze that change (an urban and transportation revolution), not fuel it”.

Furthermore, unlike the Eisenhower era when there was pent up demand for production after World War II, we are likely to suffer a prolonged hang over from the binge of the last decades. The stimulus is unlikely to be strong enough to get the private sector including business and the consumer to respond no matter how large it is.

Given our financial condition, we can’t avoid a spending binge investing in the past if the spending drought continues and new production doesn’t directly follow.

How did we get into this fix? We do have creative and sometimes even visionary people with ideas about smart growth, sustainability, new urbanism, renewable energy and distributed power, open space protection, heritage development and 21st century mobility. These ideas exist both on paper and in some cases real projects, but to be realistic they are mostly seedling ideas.

Missing has been an overall system of national, state and regional planning to blueprint and marshall resources and the political courage of conviction necessary to really restore our cities, our rail and transit systems, our educational system, our food system, our health system, our natural resources stewardship, and so forth. We pick and poke at one thing or another, but we don’t get our act together to really be transformational. We have been just too busy making paper profits, driving SUVs, building McMansions and just plain shopping? Or, is it that there are just too many vested interests in every of our “systems” to create the great log jam we are in? We have no desire or willingness to support planning.

We need a grand vision for the 21st century that addresses all the aforementioned systems and clearly provides the road map to realize the vision. Let us hope that Obama understands this and takes steps like initiating a comprehensive planning effort with Federal financial support for urban, regional and state planning throughout the nation and an overarching national body to frame the vision and implementing strategy for Congress.

Please, we need real planning at every level of our complex governmental system and economy to guide the real makeover of our rural areas, suburbs, cities and regions to be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. Can we do that without a planning infrastructure? I am not a planner and I think not.

Some like America 2050 (www.America2050.org)—Coalition of Leading Civic/Business/Environmental Organizations and Transportation Officials express concern that the stimulus money “will be blindly thrown at rebuilding America’s infrastructure-causing more harm than good”. It is hitting good buttons of fix, phase, green, train and count, but they don’t call for the grand vision nor needed planning infrastructure to avoid what it fears. Rather it is simply a group of transportation, policy and other usual suspects looking to get their hands on stimulus decision making. If they do and we don’t get an ongoing real planning effort to transform America, we still will be doing more on the harm side than the good side.

In the 1960s Governor Rockefeller had a first class planning agency that helped design public efforts like pure waters, the Adirondack Park Agency and a State University System. It produced a broad State Development plan. It foundered when Rockefeller’s successors had no interest in planning and only reacted to the crisis of the moment.

Time will tell if Obama understands that a broad and ongoing planning effort is needed if we can accomplish more than fixing the old and really organizing and building a 21st century future that the public and private markets can believe in. Let us hope he understands.

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