The Universal Notebook: On the road to recovery
Our all-American addiction to the automobile (an affliction from which I suffer shamefully, by the way) has led Maine to spend some $131 million of its stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on road and bridge projects. We seem determined to drive our way back to economic prosperity.
I'm not sure that's possible.
But talk about shovel-ready. Have you tried to get anywhere in Portland this summer? The other day I was trapped by road crews every which way I turned – on Brighton Avenue, Warren Avenue, Ocean Avenue. I found myself driving through neighborhoods I haven't seen for decades trying to avoid traffic delays and get out of town. One piece of friendly advice: if you do find yourself stuck in traffic, have the good sense to turn your engine off. Idling cars are the devil's tools.
I won't pretend to understand the U.S. economy if you won't, but I have to wonder whether putting highway crews to work is really the best way to pump new life into it.
When Gov. John Baldacci announced that Pike Industries of New Hampshire was the winning bidder for the reconstruction of Interstate 295 from Brunswick to Gardiner, he talked about that stimulus project creating 840 jobs. From what I understand, Pike only hired 37 new workers for the I-295 job beyond the 250 it already had in Maine. Thirty million dollars to create 37 new jobs? I sure hope those guys were well paid.
For finishing the I-295 project 20 days early, Pike also received a $2 million performance bonus. What a coincidence. Maine state employees are being forced to take 20 unpaid furlough days in order to save the state $11 million. If we've got bonus bucks to throw around, maybe we should consider performance bonuses to state employees.
Another automotive way the government is trying to jump-start the economy is the Cash for Clunkers program, investing $1.9 billion to encourage car owners to trade in vehicles that get less than 18 mpg for ones that get better gas mileage, thus giving the struggling U.S. auto industry a one-time shot in the arm. Cash for Clunkers has been wildly popular with car buyers. But car dealers, who have to front the $4500 rebates, are now complaining that the government isn't paying them back fast enough. Surprise. Surprise. But the U.S. Department of Transportation will soon be employing 1,100 people just to review Cash for Clunker applications, so I guess it's a jobs program as well as an energy conservation and consumer incentive program.
As a matter of personal public policy, I always vote against highway bonds. That's because I suffer from liberal guilt over my auto addiction and because I subscribe to two bedrock principles of Maine life – the Al Diamon Principle of Highway Maintenance (named for my old friend and fellow cranky columnist who came up with it years ago) and the Lloyd Irland Principle of Tourism (named for the former state economist who may now wish to disavow it).
The Diamon Principle states that we can solve many of Maine's problems (sprawl, congestion, pollution, unwanted development) simply by not maintaining our roads. The Irland Principle states that tourists eventually destroy the very thing they seek.
Let's not make it too easy for invaders to overrun us. Let the roads go to pot and the tourists go to you know where. That's my Recovery and Reinvestment strategy.