“Flipping” through the 407 pages of America’s $787 billion economic stimulus and recovery package, formerly known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, one quickly discovers that the legislation is truly overwhelming.   The Act, if properly implemented, could provide the country with the necessary infrastructure and resources to make better ecological choices available for knowledge consumers.  The Act takes great strides toward promoting energy efficiency, as well as renewing the nation’s transportation systems.

In the broad environmental context, the stimulus package focuses first on energy efficiency and conservation, and second transportation and car technology.  The Act provides funding for green investments for such varied locations as the Department of Defense, public housing, residential homes, and schools.  Eight billion dollars has been provided for state and local weatherization efforts and assistance, plus an additional $3.2 billion for local energy improvements, including funding energy audits, energy conservation incentives, energy retrofits; developing advanced building codes; and creating incentives for government purchases of energy efficient installations in buildings, as well as new traffic signals and street lights.  Money is also available to support fuel cell technology, smart grid technology, carbon sequestration, and alternative fuels.

Have these funds be used effectively, providing new choices for individuals such as more mass transit designed with urban geography in mind, faster and more frequent train service, improved and affordable hybrid and plug-in cars, and accessible information about weatherization and affordable building products?

The Act does provide vast sums to improve car technology and the country’s transportation system.  For example, incentives exist to produce better hybrid and plug-in electric vehicle technology. The Act contains $2.4 billion in incentives to buy plug-in hybrids making available $7500 tax credits for individual purchases.  It provides $8 billion for Amtrak and high speed rail, as well as $8.4 billion for public mass transit nationwide.  In doing so, the Act brings immense promise for rail service for all types in the United States.  The President himself has proposed a nationwide high-speed rail plan and has indicated that the stimulus money is just the “first step” of a “long-term project,” suggesting that more money may be forthcoming.  Some rail projects that have been discussed for decades like expansion of the Downeaster from Brunswick and Portland, Maine, to Boston, and high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison, Wisconsin, actually might happen after decades of discussion.

However, the Act still allocates far more money (in my view, far too much money) for roads and highways.  Perhaps this should be expected given the amount of resources already allocated to the nation’s highways and automotive industry, and that Americans have grown accustomed to “free” roads.  Train travel might be better if they received the same travel subsidy as the motor vehicle industry.  (I note that China is spending a much larger amount on high-speed rail than the U.S.)

My home state of Vermont will spend 20 times more stimulus money on highways compared to public mass transit. Similarly, of the $529 million in total stimulus money rewarded to my birth state of Wisconsin, nearly 20% will be spent on a single highway project, the reconstruction and expansion of Interstate 94.  Across the country, nearly four times more money will be spent on roads and bridges versus rail service, $28 billion versus $8 billion in the first installment.  The disparity is striking.  It means that the infrastructure of sprawl will persist, and individual energy consumption and the risk of climate change are being hedged against the creation of carbon-free automobile technology.