Obama and Transportation

With collapsing urban transportation systems and an out-of-control oil spill (not to mention a stubborn 10% unemployment rate) recently battering President Barack Obama, to what degree is he leading a paradigm shift in transportation policy?

Follow the Money…

On February 1, president Obama unveiled his Fiscal Year 2011 US$3.8 trillion budget. Sustainable transportation activists saw some reason to celebrate: out of US$6.7 billion dedicated to transportation, US$530 million was allocated to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a programme aimed to enhance metropolitan affordable housing and transportation connections. Obama has also set aside US$1 billion for high-speed rail (HSR), adding to the US$8 billion that went to HSR from last year’s US$787 billion stimulus measure, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). And on February 17 the administration announced the winners for US$1.5 billion in another part of the ARRA, the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) awards. Highway projects received 23% of funding, while rail projects won 19%, transit projects 26%, ports 7%, and multimodal projects received 25%.

“I think this administration has given the signal that it’s serious about making communities livable,” said Caron Whitaker, campaign director for the advocacy organisation America Bikes. “It’s serious about biking and walking.”

Construction and Cars versus Operations

Still, the amount of money being dedicated to any kind of transportation revolution is small. One of the largest single recipients of ARRA money in the country is the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, a US$420 million project to relieve congestion on a California highway that carries about 160,000 vehicles daily. The Department of Transportation (DoT) has awarded US$197.5 million in ARRA money to the project. The rebuild of a highway from the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco has also received stimulus money – US$122 million – and then an additional US$46 milion in TIGER funds. And those are just two out of many highway construction projects that received ARRA funding.

Add to those figures last year’s US$3 billion Cash for Clunkers programme, in which consumers traded in old gas guzzlers for new, slightly more fuel efficient cars, and the combined US$52 million that General Motors has received in the form of loans and the taxpayer purchase of 60% of its stock. Then compare this amount to US$114 million: the projected deficit for the San Francisco public transportation system – which carries about 700,000 passengers daily – over the next two years. In order to eliminate that deficit, the agency may cut service by 10%. (SamTrans, the transit agency south of San Francisco, has cut its service by 15% in order to close its budget gap.) Yet no – or very little – money goes from the federal government to transit operations. “It’s a matter of political will,” said Jim Berard, director of communications for the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

On February 12, San Francisco Bay Area transit advocates received a sign that this political will may be emerging: the Federal Transit Administration announced it would deny US$70 million for a rail extension to the Oakland Airport. The money that would have gone to construct a project widely considered a boondoggle will, instead, be divided among the region’s ailing transit agencies for maintenance.


Meanwhile in the House and the Senate, the US$500 billion renewal of the 2005 Surface Transportation Bill languishes. “The big issue,” said Berard, “is how we’re going to pay for it.”

According to Berard, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure James Oberstar (D-Minnesota) has recommended an increased federal gasoline tax (now 18.4 cents), which has not gone up since 1993. Another possibility is taxing people based on vehicle miles travelled (VMT). But both these revenue-generating measures come with problems. People are buying more fuel-efficient cars, thus lowering what lawmakers can expect to generate from a gas tax; and both gasoline and VMT taxes depend on people doing something that good transportation policy seeks to discourage: driving.

In lieu of the stalled transportation bill, the House passed a job creation bill in December. “Ten percent of the transportation money in the bill will go towards operations,” said Matt Lewis, transportation staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity. “At the forefront is the idea that saving a job that is going to be cut is just as good as creating a job through a capital project.”

Susan Vaughan is a San Francisco bicyclist, gardener, artist and public transportation activist in search of that most elusive of all luxuries: free time. She also occasionally maintains the blog Car-Free Talk.

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