What Has President Obama Done to Improve American Transportation Policy?

With the election just days away, it’s a good time to reflect on what the Obama administration has done with transportation policy – and what a Romney administration might have in store. Streetsblog does not endorse candidates. This is an overview of their respective records and a look back at what we know of these two men. We’ll start with President Obama in this post and move on to Mitt Romney in the next one.

High-speed rail could have been President Obama's signature achievement. Photo courtesy of Obama for America.

Perhaps the best thing President Obama did for transportation policy was to nominate Ray LaHood as U.S. DOT secretary. Sure, LaHood reportedly wanted to be Secretary of Agriculture, not transportation. And yes, Obama’s main motive for nominating the moderate Republican congressman was to make friends across the aisle, a goal that for the most part went woefully unmet. Nonetheless, LaHood has proven to be a genuine reformer.

We knew LaHood was a keeper when he stood on a tabletop and declared that bicycles were on an “equal footing” with cars, announcing “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

The administration’s creation of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities has created valuable new links between federal transportation, housing, and environmental policies, demonstrating how government can eliminate barriers between agencies. It’s a model that some state transportation agencies have begun to take note of, as they approach local governments to craft land use and transportation decisions that make sense in tandem.

Even the Republican House of Representatives’ ire toward the Partnership can’t destroy the essential piece of it: that agencies are breaking down siloes and communicating more effectively with each other. The smart growth ethic that infuses the Partnership has permeated the three agencies involved – and many more.

Another signature achievement of this administration has been the TIGER program. TIGER has awarded more than $3 billion to more than 200 transportation projects based on their ability to meet strategic objectives, bucking longstanding policies (which continue in the current transportation bill) that fund transportation based on formulas and a singular focus on making sure every state gets their piece of the pie. While TIGER has some geographic criteria and a set-aside for rural areas, it has rewarded cities, regions, and towns that are innovating, and the program has prioritized bike/ped infrastructure, streetcars, freight rail, maintenance of existing roads, and other measures that advance sustainable transportation and smart growth. And by the way, that rural set-aside isn’t a bad thing: It’s helped jump-start transit access in a lot of small towns and tribal areas.

You can’t talk about the Obama administration’s “signature” accomplishments without mentioning high-speed rail, which could have been the president’s crowning achievement. He swung for the fences and ended up hitting a single. The program now focuses on rail improvements, rather than HSR per se, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The confluence of the sour economy, bitter Congress, and stubbornly anti-rail governors was too much to implement the full extent of the administration’s vision. High-speed rail is now being kept on life-support only because Congress can’t pass a budget and keeps extending old ones.

The high-speed rail program and TIGER both had their genesis in the stimulus bill, one of the monumental acts on which Obama’s administration is judged. But the stimulus was a one-shot affair, and it didn’t change the core transportation policies that shortchange transit and lead so many states to waste billions of dollars on expanding highways.

The president did put forward an ambitious transportation bill that looked like a step in the right direction. It would have spent $556 billion over six years (compare that to the current bill: $105 billion over two years) with a bigger share for transit than in the current law. That bill, as well as his failed jobs bill, included seed money for a national infrastructure bank – another unfulfilled priority.

But the administration’s unwillingness to engage with Congress to find a viable revenue stream doomed Obama’s transportation proposal. The White House refused to get behind any funding source for the plan, whether it be an increase in the gas tax or a vehicle-miles-traveled user fee. That same issue jammed up negotiations in Congress as well, with the House unable to pass a bill at all until it finally approved the conference report. As the two chambers were embroiled in the process, it was hard not to notice the lack of leadership from the White House.

So maybe that’s the story of Obama’s presidency, when it comes to transportation: big ideas, not enough follow-through.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, the former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair who was ousted in the midterm election, still remembers with no small amount of bitterness that the same reticence on funding issues resulted in the sidelining of his own transportation proposal, released three full years before MAP-21 was finally signed. In 2008 and 2009, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, the best chance to enact a robust bill came and went. Coming on the heels of the Wall Street meltdown and the foreclosure crisis, the price tag was deemed too high, and the political appetite for tax increases was too low.

Transportation and infrastructure haven’t come up much during this campaign. The Democratic platform is all GM bailout and new highways. Supporters of transportation reform have been left to pine for the days when Obama campaigned on a message of urbanism and transit.

  • Anonymous

    You forgot the mention that the administration pushed for Federal take-over of transit safety. Inflicting the FRA weight penalty on subways and streetcars — this will be Obama’s transportation legacy.

  • Irvindawid

    thanks Tanya, great piece.  Most important (for me): “But the administration’s unwillingness to engage with Congress to find a viable revenue stream doomed Obama’s transportation proposal…”
    Remember how Clinton/Gore increase gas tax (first for deficit reduction, then Highway Trust Fund) in 1993/1997, respectively?  LaHood initially came out in support of VTF – then Obama put the kibosh on that – big mistake.  I think he got caught up in the no new taxes for those making <$250K, unlike Clinton who realized all needed to make some sort of sacrifice, I think.
    "Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, kicked off the latest tiff last month when he said that he was considering a mileage tax as one long-term option for raising money to pay for infrastructure" projects." (McClatchy via Planetizen, March 2009: Obama Rejects Gas Tax, VMT Fee)
    Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2009/03/06/63461/mileage-tax-gains-in-congress.html#storylink=cpy

  • John Dough

    LaHood is an idiot.

    To refer to high speed rail as Obama’s signature accomplishment is testimony to how pathetic the rest of his “accomplishments” have been.

  • NoCarsGo

    I have a special love for people who refer to politicians and policy-makers as idiots.  It’s always such a compelling argument. 

  • fj

    Is transportation advocacy making the same mistake on climate change that Obama is doing?

    The Sounds of Silence: Team Obama launched the inane strategy of downplaying climate change back in March 2009.

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/05/1140531/the-sounds-of-silence-team-obama-launched-the-inane-strategy-of-downplaying-climate-change-back-in-march-2009/

  • Milo10

    Duh….is that all he’s done???

  • cate

    Great article, Tanya. Thank you for summing these policies up so succinctly.

  • jac

    Main objective was the FEMA rails for shipping our American asses to the Fema camps…………..located all over the good USA………..What a bunch of crap, what they should have covered is what he has done…………….

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