by The Oregonian Editorial Board

Thursday November 06, 2008, 4:45 PM

As Congress shapes a stimulus package, the Northwest should seek to boost its bridges, roads and rails

Amid the gathering economic gloom, Speaker Nancy Pelosi seeks to revive and expand the $61 billion stimulus bill that was passed in September by the House but failed to clear the Senate. In contrast to the first economic stimulus bill rushed through Congress earlier this year, the proposed House package is designed to have a lasting positive effect partly by funding infrastructure projects that would put people to work.

A Japanese bullet train.

That makes this the right moment for Oregon and Washington to prepare their cases for the most pressing infrastructure needs in the Pacific Northwest. Can the stimulus bill help pay for the proposed new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River? How about high-speed rail, to link with the massive new project approved Tuesday by California voters, or perhaps north to Vancouver, B.C.? For that matter, how about a renovation of the creaky railroad network we already have, but whose poor condition causes constant delays?

“We’re trying to think big,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who is in a position to help shape the next stimulus package because of his role on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
How big? Well, a national high-speed railway network — a gleam in DeFazio’s eye — might cost $350 billion or so. That’s the kind of number that was considered staggering before Congress rushed through a $750 billion bank rescue package. And if there is to be a new stimulus package, experts believe it should include at least $300 billion in government spending to be effective.

There may be no better moment for high-speed rail. Officials in nine Midwestern states are pushing a plan to create high-speed rail corridors that would link some major cities, such as Minneapolis and Chicago. Similar moves are afoot in the Northeast and, of course, California voters just approved a $19.4 billion bullet-train project that would eventually connect San Diego to Sacramento. Amtrak’s ridership and revenue numbers have risen steadily, reaching record highs last year, goosed by the high costs of driving and flying.

The first stimulus checks put a little money in the pockets of taxpayers, who promptly spent it, to no lasting benefit. But infrastructure projects are gifts that keep on giving — they employ thousands of people and leave an enduring legacy. Rail projects, in particular, would help lessen dependence on imported fuel, striking a blow for the nation’s energy independence.

High-speed rail in major commuting corridors would be a terrific benefit of the deepening recession, but it will take many years to build out such a network. In the short term, Congress should look hard at the list of ready-to-go infrastructure projects that ran through DeFazio’s committee last month. The projects that lack only bureaucratic approvals or local matches can and should begin as soon as a new stimulus bill is passed.

In the middle term, projects such as Portland’s planned eastside streetcar could benefit from an infusion of federal money. At any rate, there’s no better time to make the case.

Of course, all of this adds to America’s monstrous debt load, which can be measured by the high-speed digital clock on DeFazio’s Web site. (At this moment, it says “Your share of the national debt is $31,167.”) But this isn’t a moment for government to change its mind about the interventionist course it embarked upon beginning last winter.

When Richard Nixon said in 1971, “We are all Keynesians now,” he didn’t know the half of it.