Gov. Bob McDonnell’s PR shop has taken to touting the immediate job-and business-creating benefits of Virginia’s accelerated road building and maintenance program. The governor had better be wary about that short-term focus– he might not like where the logic leads.
One recent press release touted an analysis of 10 highway projects funded by the administration’s $4 billion transportation program. Just those 10 projects will support nearly 3,700 direct jobs during their construction, $190.8 million in personal income, $14.8 million in state and local tax revenues and other benefits to Virginia.
In another release, McDonnell drew attention to the fact that the 495 Express
Lanes project on the Capital Beltway had awarded nearly $450 million in contracts to small and disadvantaged businesses — 75% of which were located in Virginia.
Temporary job creation and the handing out of boodle to small businesses is, admittedly, a benefit of public works spending. But that doesn’t make it a wise investment of resources. Here’s what we should be asking: What is the long-term benefit, the Return on Investment, if you will, once the construction phase is finished?
The problem with the short-term focus is that roads and highways are not the best public works projects for putting construction workers back on the job. As the Southern Environmental Law Center notes in its Junction ATL blog, “Not all transportation projects create jobs equally.” Research conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst concludes that mass transit projects create more jobs — 17,784 jobs for every $1 billion in spending compared to 12,638 jobs per $1 billion spent on new road construction and 14,790 for $1 billion spent on maintenance. I doubt that’s a road the McDonnell administration wants to travel down.
The purpose of public spending on transportation is to provide mobility and access, improve the safety of travel, help the environment and stimulate economic development. Those are the criteria we should use when deciding how to allocate public dollars, not the creation of temporary jobs.