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Congress Goes Long On Clean Energy

Yesterday, the House unveiled a draft outline of its $825 billion stimulus package, which included, among other things, some $76 billion over two years in energy-related projects, from weatherizing buildings to subsidizing renewable energy and battery research to building new transit lines. Nitty-gritty here. Note the whopping $11 billion for a smart grid, an investment that, if done right, could pay big dividends down the line. Environmental and clean-energy groups couldn't be happier, from what I can tell. To put things in perspective, even the Apollo Alliance, one of the major proponents of a gargantuan, moon-shot approach to greening the nation's energy supply, had only been praying for $50 billion worth of investment in the first year. (Mind you, we'll see what happens when the Senate gets done wrestling this sucker.)

Transit advocates, meanwhile, think more could be done. David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington observes that the package contains $30 billion for highways and $10 billion for mass transit. True, that's a departure from the status quo—normally 20 percent of federal transportation money goes toward transit—but that still leaves a vast array of backlogged transit projects and repairs around the country unfunded. For example, the House doled out $1.1 billion for intercity passenger rail, but the Transportation Department estimates that the Northeast Corridor alone has $10 billion worth of backlog. A few Democrats and green groups are pushing to change this—one concern is that the highway money goes toward repairs, rather than endless sprawl. I still think, though, that rejiggering all this transportation spending in a sustainable way might be better hashed out in this year's transportation reauthorization bill, rather than an economic-recovery plan whose main purpose is to create jobs as quickly as humanly possible.

P.S. The Washington Post reminds us that alternative-energy subsidies (which inevitably drag Congress into the unseemly business of picking winners and losers) are no substitute for a price on carbon. True, though plenty of items in the stimulus package—transit and grids, especially—are public goods that would need funding even if we had a cap or hefty tax on greenhouse-gas emissions.

--Bradford Plumer