Nov. 4 was a good day for public transit. Ballot measures around the country performed well — the state of California even approving a first-in-the-nation plan to create a true high-speed, inter-city rail system. Increased Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will likely clear the way for infrastructure investment with a pronounced lean toward green, equitable transit. And President-elect Obama seems inclined to lead the Congress in that direction. (If nothing else, the replacement of a distinctly anti-transit administration will lead to a much-needed shakeup of the federal transportation bureaucracy, especially the Federal Transit Administration.)
Recent dip aside, oil prices’ steady rise over the last decade — combined with increasing congestion — seems to have finally brought the American electorate to its senses.
But can Washington’s new leadership deliver?
Obama takes the reins during an exceedingly difficult time. He will be fortunate to enter office after an impressive victory and with a seeming mandate, but such momentum can be quickly exhausted in contentious battles over policy. His advisers, having studied past experience, are telling him that he must focus on no more than three big policy priorities. More than that, and his political energy may be spread too thin to produce success on any one thing.
What that suggests is that the new president will need the maximum bang for his buck. Wisely, then, Obama has made his top priority an economic recovery package, with energy policy a close second. Fitting snugly into both priorities is infrastructure investment of which rail and transit funding should be a significant part. House speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that it’s a given that transit funding will be a part of any new stimulus package, and Obama’s new chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), recently quipped, "You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid … In 1974 and 1978 we never dealt with it, and our dependence on foreign oil never changed."
Infrastructure investment is one of the most effective means to stimulate an economy. A $1 increase in infrastructure spending will generate an estimated $1.59 in increased GDP. Only unemployment benefit extensions or increases in food stamps are more effective.
And infrastructure investment is a critical part of the solution to our energy problems. That includes things like improving the national power grid, but it should also mean a major new commitment to transit construction. For years now, local governments have competed over a pool of transit money that’s entirely too small (about $1.5 billion annually, compared to nearly $40 billion spent annually on highways). This competition has resulted in a pool of projects waiting to be pulled off the shelf, and now is just the time to get them underway.
Economic crisis has reduced government borrowing costs and global resource prices, meaning that infrastructure can be built on the cheap. What’s more, putting as much idle labor back to work as possible will help disrupt the current spiral. At the same time, transit investments help lay the groundwork for reduced dependence on oil and more efficient use of land. The walkable neighborhoods that have sprung up around recently built transit stations — from my home city of Washington, D.C. to Portland and Denver — weathered home price declines and gas price fluctuations better than outlying suburbs, while helping residents reduce their carbon footprints. This is a win-win solution we should extend to a broader subset of America.
By pouring money into transit and rail, the government can get the economy moving. When recovery occurs and rising global petroleum demand pushes fuel prices upward, we’ll be better prepared to cut our gasoline use, and Obama can claim a victory. When the time comes to pass a climate bill, and opponents begin arguing that rising energy prices will pressure low-income families, we’ll be better prepared to keep families mobile without the use of automobiles, and Obama can claim a victory.
Transit means bang for the buck. Generous transit spending now will be an investment in America’s economic and environmental preparedness — which puts Obama’s political future on an express train to success.