Obama, transportation policy, and the highway bill
Did you know that Obama met a few weeks ago with 160 cycling advocates and promised them his support? I didn’t.
The 600-pound gorilla in transportation politics is the 2009 negotiation of a new highway bill, which according to CQ “is already being touted as embodying the greatest overhaul of federal transportation policy since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act into law half a century ago.”
It might behoove CQ to add, "if Obama wins." Just as McCain’s "don’t pick winners" energy policy amounts to picking winners (nukes and coal), his "anti-pork" spending policy amounts to spending on things he likes (highways) and not on things he doesn’t (Amtrak), and he’s shown no signs of liking alternative transit options. (Indeed, he shows no signs of having thought deeply about transportation policy at all, tiny rewards for new car batteries notwithstanding.)
The signs are somewhat better with Obama, though certainly not clear enough that I’d bet much money on an Eisenhower-scale shift. He’s made some good noises about transit and bikes, and I had this exchange with his top energy adviser Jason Grumet:
JG: A transportation act will be authorized early in the next administration, and we believe that presents a critical opportunity to address the environmental and energy-security challenges that are essential to transportation policy but have always been seen as afterthoughts.
DR: It’s a roads bill, right?
JG: That’s what has to change. Transportation policy in this country is still working from the 1950s imperative: economic competitiveness and national security through building an interstate highway system. We need to rearticulate a more clear role for transportation policy, which has to attend to energy security, environmental quality, and global competitiveness, which means thinking differently about how to get the most effective response to the national investment. Addressing climate change is going to require significant investment in infrastructure in the transportation bill — not just roads, but transportation infrastructure. Figuring out where and how we accelerate the infrastructure for plug-in hybrids, the role of the federal government in trying to promote and enable infrastructure for alternative transportation fuels.
DR: What about a rail network, getting people out of their cars?
JG: There is an idea of mode neutrality — when we think about functionality, we don’t just think about moving people, but we think about the energy and the environmental implications of the different choices. Set up a system that prioritizes federal resources in a manner that attends to all of those goals at the same time and does not foist them against each other.
We hear over and over again from local government that they are most capable when it comes to transportation planning, zoning issues, land-use issues, energy-efficiency standards — and that the federal program has to not just allow those efforts to continue, but provide incentives, so that efforts to reduce pollution in one town achieve a real ecological benefit and don’t just squeeze one side of the balloon.
Were I a gambling man, I’d bet on a huge brouhaha over transit next year that ends with large (in absolute terms) but inadequate (relative to what’s needed) increases in funding for bike lanes, mass transit, and plug-in infrastructure. In the end, I think regions are basically going to have to take the reins on transit, working out innovative public-private funding structures and bringing their own residents around on tax hikes.
As gas prices continue to rise, and there are more and more concrete transit and bike success stories, this stuff will spread.