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Not a Word About Transit in Obama Jobs Plan

President Obama released a blueprint for his second term yesterday, a 20-page booklet focused on job creation [PDF]. Let’s be clear: This came from his campaign machine, not the White House.

In the booklet, called “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan For Jobs and Middle-Class Security,” Obama touts his success at keeping the American auto industry alive through government life support, saying the bailout brought back the nearly-extinct manufacturing sector in the United States.

He also commits to drilling in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, it’s part of Obama’s “all of the above” strategy that includes renewable energy sources, but it’s also got a lot of oil and gas, not to mention “clean” coal.

While about 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption is used for transportation, there’s not much in the document about investing in smarter, more efficient ways to get around.

The President mentions the doubling of fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025, but that’s all he has to say about how to reduce fuel consumption. It would be refreshing to see a mention of transit and active transportation, freight rail, or even his apparently abandoned signature initiative around high-speed passenger rail. Reducing the appetite for drilling in the Arctic could be a more inspiring rallying cry than this surrender to our oil overlords.

At the end of the section on energy, in boldface, Obama says, “And by growing American energy, we can keep our young men and women working here at home, not fighting wars on foreign soil.” If he’d replaced — or at least supplemented – ”growing American energy” with “building American transit,” he could have made a more convincing and coherent argument.

Later in the document, in a section on deficit reduction, Obama proposes to “commit half of the money saved from responsibly ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to reducing the deficit and the other half to putting Americans back to work rebuilding roads, bridges, runways, and schools here in the United States.” Still no mention of “transit” amidst the roads and bridges. No hint that we can fund transportation projects that use space and energy more efficiently, so that perhaps we can avoid the next war over oil.

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Will Obama’s Transportation Jobs Plan Avoid Funding Sprawl?

USDOT has made public the breakdown of President Obama’s $50 billion plan to create jobs through transportation infrastructure investment. The administration says: “It will put people to work upgrading 150,000 miles of road, laying/maintaining 4,000 miles of train tracks, restoring 150 miles of runways, and putting in place a next-generation air-traffic control system that will reduce travel time and delays.”

Obama announcing the American Jobs Act. Photo: SHRM

Specifically, they lay out the numbers:

  • $27 billion for rebuilding roads and bridges
  • $9 billion for repairing bus and rail transit systems
  • $5 billion for projects selected through a competitive grant program
  • $4 billion for construction of the high-speed rail network
  • $2 billion to improve airport facilities
  • $1 billion for a NextGen air traffic control system

It’s encouraging to see the words “upgrading” and “rebuilding” when it comes to roads, indicating that the administration might be adhering to a fix-it-first approach to transportation spending. But, as we mentioned last week, the bridge Obama highlighted recently as a prime target for jobs-bill money isn’t actually in need of repair — transportation officials just want to widen it to allow more traffic to go through faster.

Certainly, the administration has shown a desire to attack the maintenance backlog in the country, but that doesn’t guarantee that highway expansions and sprawl projects won’t get a slice of the “rebuilding” pie.

That said, it’s good to see the plan includes $5 billion for projects funded through a competitive grant program (think TIGER). And it also hits a somewhat more equitable balance between rail/transit and roads than Congressional transportation bills generally do.

The president’s plan also includes an infrastructure bank, funded with $10 billion seed money. The administration says projects will be evaluated on the basis of how badly they’re needed and how much they would help the economy.

Some have said over the last couple of weeks that the I-bank concept is in trouble after the GOP pounced on the Solyndra loan story, in which a solar company filed for bankruptcy soon after receiving half a billion dollars in government-backed loans. Experts say the infrastructure bank proposal would vet projects well and protect taxpayers from risk.

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Obama: “I Will Veto Any Bill” Without Tax Increases on the Wealthy

In a Rose Garden speech this morning, President Obama soundly rejected Republicans’ push to address the deficit exclusively through spending cuts with no tax increases. He was responding to House Speaker John Boehner, who said last week that tax increases were “off the table.” The outcome of the current deficit-cutting fight could have significant implications for transportation-related proposals like the national infrastructure bank, which Obama included in his recently-unveiled American Jobs Act.

President Obama said he won't accept spending cuts without tax increases. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a speech last Thursday, Boehner ruled out any form of tax increase as the deficit reduction “super committee” decides how to meet its mandate. “When it comes to producing savings to reach its $1.5 trillion deficit reduction target, the Joint Select Committee has only one option,” he said, “spending cuts and entitlement reform.”

President Obama went to the mat this morning for a different approach to cutting the deficit. He presented his own plan, which includes some spending cuts and policy changes to Medicare and Medicaid, in addition to other programs. But the centerpiece is the elimination of corporate tax loopholes and of tax cuts for the wealthy.

“I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share,” Obama said. “We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks that are most vulnerable.”

There are many plans on the table right now, both to increase spending and to cut it. The president released his deficit reduction plan, in part, to explain how to pay for his job creation bill, which includes $50 billion for transportation infrastructure and $10 to capitalize a national infrastructure bank.

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Obama Includes Infra Bank in His Jobs Push; Mica Rejects It Out of Hand

Last night, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to present his new jobs plan, a bill he’s calling the American Jobs Act. He relied on the well-worn appeal to people’s patriotic competitiveness by pointing out that China is improving its infrastructure while the U.S. is sitting idly by. Without mentioning the dollar figure (psst… it’s $50 billion) he said he’d get construction workers back on the job rebuilding transportation infrastructure and schools:

And to make sure the money is properly spent, we’re building on reforms we’ve already put in place. No more earmarks. No more boondoggles. No more Bridges to Nowhere. We’re cutting the red tape that prevents some of these projects from getting started as quickly as possible. And we’ll set up an independent fund to attract private dollars and issue loans based on two criteria: how badly a construction project is needed and how much good it will do for the economy.

And without ever saying the words “infrastructure bank,” he made his push for one:

This idea came from a bill written by a Texas Republican [Kay Bailey Hutchison] and a Massachusetts Democrat [John Kerry]. The idea for a big boost in construction is supported by America’s largest business organization and America’s largest labor organization. It’s the kind of proposal that’s been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans alike. You should pass it right away.

He would capitalize the bank with an initial $10 billion, just as Sens. Kerry and Hutchison had proposed. Obama’s own earlier proposal called for a $30 billion investment.

Obama’s written plan also pledges investments in TIGER and TIFIA – good news, since the 2012 transportation budget passed by a House subcommittee yesterday zeroed out TIGER entirely. It also builds on his instruction to agency heads to identify projects that deserve federal help – if not funds – for streamlining the process.

Transportation reform advocates praised the bill, with James Corless of Transportation for America calling it “both ambitious and pragmatic.”

House Transportation Committee ranking Democrat Nick Rahall sat next to Chair John Mica during the speech, and afterward, Rahall said, “We may have walked out of the chamber with different views on the President’s proposals, but I remain committed to working together in a bipartisan fashion.”

We’ll see if they can find anything they both agree to work on. The statement Mica issued after the speech was a quick repudiation of everything the president had asked for:

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Behind President Obama’s Call For More Infrastructure Projects

Tomorrow night, President Obama will unveil his jobs plan before a skeptical Congress. It’s unclear how much of the $300 billion proposal will go to infrastructure, but the president has said that will be a centerpiece of the proposal. An infrastructure bank and a new version of the expired Build America Bonds program could also be on the agenda.

How about this for your next transportation stimulus, Mr. President? Image: Austin Strategic Mobility Plan

Given the GOP strategy of obstructing any stated goal of the administration, it’ll be a tough sell. Some Republicans have already made it clear they would rather see a $640 billion, 12-month payroll tax holiday. That would increase the deficit by more than twice what Obama’s plan would, but deficits don’t seem to matter as long as taxes are getting cut.

So it’s no surprise that the president is also looking for ways that he can spur infrastructure job creation without Congress’s approval. Last week, Obama pleaded with Congress to pass a clean extension of the transportation bill (a plea which some Republicans are gleefully denying). At the same time, he announced that he was directing some agencies to each identify three infrastructure projects that could use a little federal help in speeding up the process. Here’s what he said:

In keeping with a recommendation from my Jobs Council, today I’m directing certain federal agencies to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work. And these projects — these are projects that are already funded, and with some focused attention, we could expedite the permitting decisions and reviews necessary to get construction underway more quickly while still protecting safety, public health, and the environment.

He specifically called on the departments of agriculture, commerce, housing and urban development, interior and transportation to highlight three projects each. We were wondering whether this process will end up falling into some of the same traps as the stimulus, which emphasized shovel-readiness to the detriment of other evaluation criteria for new projects, like whether the money would be well-spent.

Though Obama didn’t use the phrase “shovel-ready” last week, he called for projects that are already funded and have state and local permits, which implies nearly the same thing. Without a new stimulus, which the Republicans have already promised to oppose, there is no money to fund new projects, making it imperative to find those that are already funded. Still, the president admitted last year that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”

And despite the administration’s general friendliness toward transit and understanding of the limitations of the private automobile, 60 percent of transportation dollars in the stimulus went to highways, with just 20 percent to transit. (Most of the rest went to freight rail, with a little bit for aviation and maritime projects.)

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President Obama Pushes Congress For a Clean Extension of Transpo Bill

President Obama exhorted Congress to pass a clean extension of the transportation bill, to keep people, like some of those by his side, at work.

“I’m calling on Congress, as soon as they come back, to pass a clean extension of the surface transportation bill,” President Barack Obama said from the Rose Garden this morning. “This bill provides funding for highway construction, bridge repair, mass transit systems, and other essential projects that keep our people and our commerce moving quickly and safely. And for construction workers and their families across the country, it represents the difference between making ends meet and not making ends meet.”

While his calls for an extension of the current bill are increasingly in line with the growing realization that there is no possible way of passing a new bill before the September 30 extension, Obama did look beyond the immediate fix. “When Congress is back next week, in addition to passing these clean extensions to prevent any halt on existing work, we’re going to have to have a serious conversation in this country about making real, lasting investments in our infrastructure — from better ports to a smarter electric grid, from high-speed internet to high-speed rail.”

The president’s speech, first announced yesterday, made a push not only to put people back to work, but to “reform the way transportation money is invested, to eliminate waste, to give states more control over the projects that are right for them, and to make sure that we’re getting better results for the money that we spend.”

We need to stop funding projects based on whose districts they’re in and start funding them based on how much good they’re going to be doing for the American people. No more bridges to nowhere, no more projects that are simply funded because of somebody pulling strings. We need to do this all in a way that gets the private sector more involved. That’s how we’re going to put construction workers back to work right now, doing the work that America needs done, not just to boost our economy this year but for the next 20 years.

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Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Bike Ride

President Obama with daughter Malia on Tuesday. Not pictured: Secret Service SUVs. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty via Transportation Nation

This week marked the 109th anniversary of the first presidential motorcade, starring Theodore Roosevelt. If you’ve ever wondered why TR’s successors so rarely ditch their limos in favor of human-powered transport, read on. Staged photo op or no, it seems being elected president is a great way to spoil a family outing.

Copy from Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown via the White House Press Office. Emphasis added.

The First Family took a leisurely ride Tuesday morning through Manuel F. Correllus State Forest.

After about a half-hour wait, shortly after 11 a.m., the pool got a glimpse of the president, decked out in a helmet, sunglasses, a black polo shirt and dark jeans.

But first up: First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha took the lead, passing first by the pool, which was assembled in knee-deep grass off a concrete bike path. Neither said anything to the reporters, photographers and TV cameras recording them.

Several minutes later, the president and daughter Malia rode by.

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The Dangers of Touting the Job-Creation Benefits of Transpo Investment

Earlier this week, President Obama spoke to reporters at the White House. Fully aware of the growing concern in the country over the “jobless recovery,” Obama led off by talking about jobs – and pushing Congress to pass a transportation reauthorization. But was he using the wrong talking point?

“Right now, Congress could send me a bill that puts construction workers back on the job rebuilding roads and bridges –- not by having government fund and pick every project, but by providing loans to private companies and states and local governments on the basis of merit and not politics,” the president said. “That’s pending in Congress right now.”

The inclusion of the line about merit went over well in transportation reform circles, where people have been pushing for a greater emphasis on performance metrics and less spending by strict formulas regardless of outcome.

Later, in response to a question about whether the debt debate was hamstringing his ability to take action on creating jobs, Obama talked again about transportation.

“I think it’s important for us to look at rebuilding our transportation infrastructure in this country,” he said. “That could put people back to work right now — construction workers back to work right now.”

Obama’s not the only one to try to sell the transportation bill as a jobs package. Sen. Barbara Boxer likes to have her aides hold up 20 poster-sized pictures of the Dallas Cowboys stadium, filled with people, to illustrate the number of construction workers out of work right now. She uses this to show the urgency of passing transportation investment legislation.

But according to Joshua Schank, CEO of the Eno Transportation Foundation, it’s a mistake to focus on construction jobs.

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Poll: Voters From All Walks Support Transportation Improvements, Reform

Don’t be fooled by the high-pitched rhetoric in Washington. The vast majority of Americans are united, at least when it comes to the topic of transportation.

About 79 percent of Americans think the United States needs to modernize its transportation system in order to remain the world's top economic superpower. Photo: The Daily Green

That’s the conclusion of the Rockefeller Foundation poll released earlier this week. A bipartisan polling team questioned 1,000 American voters nationwide about their attitudes toward the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems. They found individuals from every party affiliation support improvements in transportation and a greater focus on outcomes.

Survey results showed that, when it comes to transportation, 71 percent of voters think political leaders should seek common ground, rather than “hold fast to their opinions” — a position favored by just 19 percent of those surveyed.

“Voters’ message was this is something that we just need to get done,” said Jay Campbell of Hart Research Associates which, along with Public Opinion Strategies, performed the survey for the Rockefeller Foundation.

Transportation, more than any other issue, was the area in which voters want to see cooperative problem solving from the nation’s decision makers, the poll showed.

“There’s a surprising amount of partisan agreement on this issue,” said Campbell. “Everyone uses transportation. Everyone thinks it’s important to make it better than it is.”

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Obama Admin’s Bold Transpo Plan Leaves Funding Question to Congress

The president’s six-year transportation plan [PDF], included as part of the administration’s FY2012 budget proposal, weighs in at a hefty $556 billion and lays out several policy reforms that, if enacted, could help the nation transition to a more multi-modal, less oil-dependent transportation system.

The plan is a blueprint that Congress can use as a basis for its transportation reauthorization bill. It has a lot in common with then-Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar’s bill from 2009. And, like Oberstar’s bill, it leaves unanswered the question of how to fund transportation investments. This time, however, it comes in the midst of an all-out Republican war on deficit spending.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the president's proposal represents the administration's "big bold vision" for transportation. Photo: Tanya Snyder

How much of this plan will survive the GOP cutting machine is anyone’s guess. There’s a lot in the president’s proposal that’s worth saving. Some notable elements:

  • Transit funding is going up by 127 percent, while funding for roads and bridges is getting a 48 percent increase. That represents a significant shift in the highways-to-transit ratio, which will go from an 80-20 split to a 74-26 split.
  • The Highway Trust Fund is getting a long-overdue name change. The new Transportation Trust Fund will now have four accounts – the traditional highways and mass transit accounts and also new accounts for passenger rail and an infrastructure bank.
  • Some advocates are disappointed that the proposed infrastructure bank will be housed at DOT and not be formed as an independent entity, as many had hoped. Still, the shift to more discretionary, competitive grants is a huge victory for reformers.
  • The consolidation of 55 road programs into five means there will no longer be separate pots of money for bridges, for example, or trucker rest areas, according to Undersecretary Roy Kienitz. That money will be rolled into a larger pot of funding for highways that states and local governments will compete for. The five programs will be: the National Highway Program, Highway Safety Improvement, Livable Communities, Federal Allocation and Research, Technology, and Education.
  • The TIFIA loan program will go from a $120 million allocation to $450 million; TIGER, which has given out $2.1 billion in grants so far, will get $2 billion the first year in the president’s proposal.
  • The funding for livability programs – $28 billion over six years – will include bike and pedestrian improvements, but allocation decisions rest with the states.
  • While the new bill doesn’t have a line item for a new national freight policy or a new office overseeing freight movement, Kienitz said freight programs got the lion’s share of TIGER grants (pun not intended, I think) and will be well-positioned to get money from the infrastructure bank.
  • Amtrak funding will be split into two accounts: one for state of good repair and one for new system development. Read more…