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President Obama’s economic recovery plan on the right track

In his first major economic address leading up to the Inauguration, on Thursday Jan. 8, then-President-elect Barack Obama outlined his American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, promising not only to put some 3 million people to work in the short-term through targeted infrastructure investments, but also to “set a new course” for the U.S. economy.

"To build an economy that can lead this future, we will begin to rebuild America," said Obama. "Yes, we'll put people to work repairing crumbling roads, bridges and schools by eliminating the backlog of well-planned, worthy and needed infrastructure projects. But we'll also do more to retrofit America for a global economy.”

The plan has many components, including building a “smart” energy grid, expanding broadband technology, and providing skills training to better prepare American workers for jobs in growing industries.

It’s not yet clear how much of the $675 to $775 billion plan will fund infrastructure projects. And while much public debate has focused on that dollar figure, MPC and other sensible growth advocates are encouraged by the President's pledge to change how those dollars are spent.

“What is of greatest significance is that this administration has signaled it’s time to stop evaluating infrastructure investments based on the question, ‘Who asked for this project?’” said MPC President MarySue Barrett. “President Obama – and many members of Congress who have sworn off earmarking – know the question we need to start asking is, ‘In addition to new jobs, what is this project going to achieve in terms of untangling traffic congestion, reducing emissions, and connecting job centers with workforce housing and transit?’”

Indeed, Obama referenced the lack of transparency in infrastructure decision-making as a key factor driving “a devastating loss of trust and confidence in our economy, our financial markets, and our government.”

Perhaps nowhere in the nation are voters more fed up than in Illinois , where changes in state leadership appear imminent. A criteria-based approach to prioritizing infrastructure projects not only would help restore voter trust, but also ensure taxpayer dollars go to projects that achieve statewide goals. The state has not passed a capital investment plan since 1999, and a criteria-based selection process would identify significant projects and mark a new era of transparency.

MPC also recommends infrastructure dollars be funneled first to metropolitan regions, which account for the vast majority of national GDP and population. Those regions also should have a say in how their portion of the dollars is spent. In Illinois , money should flow through the 14 metropolitan planning organizations representing the vast majority of the state, including the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, charged with developing a regional vision for northeastern Illinois .

Without a sound investment strategy at the regional, state and federal levels, there’s a very real danger the economic recovery funding will only serve to repeat and reinforce past mistakes that led to the foreclosure crisis – which many would argue sent the economy spiraling down into a recession.

Instead, the stimulus package should be a down payment on making our communities more attractive, equitable and competitive.

“A good first step is to stop distributing more money to places where people drive more, and instead reward regions that are smartly planning housing near transit and jobs,” said Barrett. “By focusing on repairing and preserving what we have, near where most people live, we will reap the benefits of good jobs, reduced foreign oil dependency, cleaner air and water, and expanded choices for shopping, schools and getting around.”

Read more on MPC’s take on President Barack Obama’s recovery plan in this recent Crain’s Chicago Business op-ed.

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For 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area’s toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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