Muckraker: Grist on Politics

When the House rolled out its stimulus plan on Thursday, the set-aside for mass transit had fallen significantly from the proposal outlined last week by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar (D-Minn.).

Oberstar had called for $30 billion for roads and bridges and $17 billion for mass transit, which would give mass transit 36 percent of all the transportation funding in the stimulus package. But in the plan unveiled yesterday, while the road money stayed the same, the public transit portion was reduced by 25 percent, which includes cutting operation assistance funds entirely. As for intercity rail, for which Oberstar wanted $5 billion, its funding was reduced to $1.1 billion — a 78 percent cut.

Whose decision was it to ax so much mass-transit funding, considering that the House committee chair responsible for it has been so pro-public-transit? Sources on the Hill say that the incoming administration’s economic team was very involved in the drafting of this final proposal. Are they responsible for reducing transit so significantly, despite repeated claims that reducing oil use and investing in public transit is going to be top priority?

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Oberstar’s office says the cuts were the product of the House speaker’s office, the Senate majority leader, and the Obama transition team. “How those decisions were made, I don’t know,” Jim Berard, communications director for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Grist. “It’s disappointing that our recommendation was not accepted on the whole, but at the same time we got a good deal for transportation infrastructure and we want to keep the momentum going for this bill.”

Berard says that at this point it’s not likely transit advocates in Congress will make too big a deal out of the cuts. “We don’t want to get into a family squabble at this point. I think the imperative is to get a bill going and get it going fast, and get it enacted quickly,” he continued. “I think there’s a lot of arguments to be made for more funding in every category on there. So to slow the process down by lobbying for more money for one particular sector or another may not be productive.”

Transit activists, of course, are not happy.

“Chairman Oberstar set the bar for transit and rail investment in his stimulus blueprint. The proposal unveiled yesterday fell short by keeping his highway spending while cutting investments in options that save oil,” Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Grist. “This is at odds with the president-elect’s agenda to break free from oil dependence.”

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Those who favor spending on roads and bridges like to argue that these projects can provide faster stimulus than others because they’re “shovel-ready.” But there are billions of dollars worth of transit projects already queued up too.

In fact, there’s at least $50 billion worth of backlogged repair needs for public transit systems, compared to just $8.5 billion needed to maintain current road systems. And yet the current stimulus bill gives $30 billion to roads, meaning much of the money will be spent on expanding roads or building new ones. Meanwhile, public transit systems would get just $2 billion for upgrades and repairs to existing systems — a mere 4 percent of the funding needed to maintain current systems. Amtrak’s northeast corridor alone has a backlog of more than $10 billion in repair and infrastructure needs, but the bill allots just $1.1 billion for improving Amtrak and intercity passenger rail.

The House stimulus package includes a relatively minuscule $1 billion for new commuter and light rail, even though there are at least $2.4 billion worth of new light-rail projects that are ready to go, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

All this comes just as Barack Obama and “Amtrak” Joe Biden get ready for a railroad trip along said corridor. They’ll be traveling from Philadelphia down to Washington, D.C. this weekend on their “Whistle Stop Train Tour.” Maybe the trip will give them a few hours to think about transit funding.