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Yes, most of the transportation money went to traditional programs that distribute the money to states according to congressional formulas, with a clear emphasis on short-term shovel-readiness. But there were also two game-changing programs, both handing out cash through competitive grants rather than everybody-wins formulas, both emphasizing long-term shovel-worthiness.
The first is fairly well-known, a controversial $8 billion effort to launch a new high-speed rail network like the ones that already zip passengers around Europe and Asia, our most ambitious transportation initiative since the interstate highways. The second is quite obscure: a $1.5 billion grant program for innovative projects that don't fit into traditional highway-transit-airport silos. The so-called TIGER program doesn't just hand out cash to every project with the proper paperwork; it rewards the applicants with the most impressive economic and environmental benefits, and it's attracted $40 worth of applications for every dollar in grants. The winners have included several freight-rail projects that will take thousands of trucks off the road, a green-themed revitalization of a Kansas City neighborhood, and a multi-modal transportation center at the intersection of three interstates, a major rail corridor and a popular 26-mile bicycle and pedestrian pathway in Normal, Ill. "It's forcing us to think about transportation with a capital T, instead of just checking boxes," says John Porcari, DOT's Deputy Secretary.
The last big transportation bill, which expired a year ago but has been extended through December, was not about transportation with a capital T. It was about formulas, money, politics and pork. It included more than 6,000 earmarks, and didn't even include a statement of purpose. Obama's new proposal is the first shot in next year's battle over the next big transportation bill. And it's an implicit argument for exchanging the policies of yore for the policies embedded in the stimulus.
For one thing, it's an argument for more stimulus; construction firms are increasingly worried that next year, public-work opportunities will fall off a cliff. But Obama was not just signaling that he wants to spend; he was signaling how he wants to spend. His plan, he said, would "rebuild 150,000 miles of road" and "restore 150 miles of runways." He didn't mention anything about building new roads or runways. The clear exception to fix-it-first was high-speed rail; he said he wants to "lay and maintain 4,000 miles of track." He also proposed another legacy project, an effort to bring the satellite-based Next-Gen air-traffic-control system nationwide.
Most important, Obama wants to finance projects through an infrastructure bank. That's a clear alternative to congressional earmarks and check-the-box formulas; the goal, quite novel in Washington, would be to fund public works according to merit, the way TIGER does. James Russell, a partner at a Washington advisory firm that helps businesses land government contracts, says the bank's decisions could be vulnerable to political favoritism in a way money-for-everyone formulas are not. But it's not as if the current transportation system is apolitical. "We've got to get past the wasteful earmarks and the outdated earmarks that just shovel money to states," says David Goldberg of Transportation for America, a coalition seeking fewer highway-dominated funding policies.
The tough part, no matter what Congress does with transportation, will be paying for it. The stimulus was charged to the national credit card, but it's just about maxed out. Meanwhile, we're driving less, and our cars are using less gas, which is great, except that gas taxes finance most transportation projects; in recent years, the Treasury has bailed out the highway trust fund. Obama has ruled out any gas-tax increases, and if Republicans take back Congress, that would basically rule out any other tax increases. And nobody seems willing to detail any specific spending cuts. Where is any new cash going to come from?
The Obama Administration has some exciting ideas about a greener, smarter, safer, more balanced, less congested transportation system. They're way better than the dumb (bipartisan!) ideas behind the hundreds of billions of dollars we pour into new cement every decade. But without money, they'll just be ideas.