The Build for America Plan: Invest in Transportation, Create Jobs

Janette Sadik-Khan, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and Lee Sander. Photo: Paul White.

The Build for America campaign officially launched yesterday afternoon at Grand Central Terminal, one of six events held in cities across the nation. DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — joined by MTA chief Lee Sander, U.S. reps Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, and a bevy of advocates — advanced the case for committing ambitious levels of federal support to modernizing the nation’s transportation system.

"America’s transportation system is facing a perfect storm of huge costs, declining infrastructure, dwindling resources and dependence on foreign oil," said Sadik-Khan. "And while we’re struggling just to fix and maintain our roads, our global competitors are building systems that we simply don’t have." The United States does not have a high-speed rail system, she added, and the nation’s transit systems are struggling just to keep up with ridership demand.

Most speakers hewed to an economic argument: Federal investment in
transportation infrastructure can create
jobs as the nation faces the prospect of a deep recession. Investing that money wisely, they said, requires re-orienting spending priorities away from new highway construction and toward rail and transit.

Noting that federal spending on infrastructure has declined since 1980 from 3 percent of GDP to 1.8 percent, Nadler set a target allocation of $500 billion for the next multi-year transportation spending package (the previous package authorized $248 billion over six years). "If we do it right, it will help us get out of the very deep recession we’re going into," he said, placing an emphasis on investment in passenger and freight rail. "If we don’t do it right, it will make the recession deeper and reduce our competitiveness."

New York has a lot riding on the re-authorization. With the MTA facing a funding crisis, Sander painted a bleak picture of how the city’s transit system may deteriorate without more federal support, invoking its sorry state in the 1970s and 80s.

"The resurgence of New York is very much linked to the improved performance of the MTA," he said. "We will not be able to maintain this success without a renewed commitment from our funding partners, including the federal government. You can be sure that one finding of the Ravitch Commission will be that we cannot succeed without a strong federal bill."

  • Larry Littlefield

    I can see the spin.

    The coming collapse in our transportation system has nothing to do with falling fares, diminished federal and state tax support, $24 billion in debt, the 2000 pension enhancement, and massive over-runs in the capital plan.

    It’s the federal government’s fault.

  • It’s the right time to make these kinds of investments– I only hope this message will get through.

  • Larry, Sander mentioned the need for all of the MTA’s funding partners to increase their support, but for the purposes of this press event the focus was on the federal side.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Was the focus on Weiner? He said the federal money would soar in if the city turned down congestion pricing.

    He’s on the hook for at least $12-$15 billion in federal money, not traded for anything else. The deadline is next October, 2009, the first budget with a Democratic President and Congress — and with the dollar crashing and interest rates soaring as no one is willing to buy our debt anymore.

    If he gets it, I might vote for him.

    By the way, I want that in real dollars. If we inflate our way our of the debt collapse, with inflation running at 10%+ per year, I want an adjustment.

  • “Most speakers hewed to an economic argument: Federal investment in transportation infrastructure can create jobs as the nation faces the prospect of a deep recession. Investing that money wisely, they said, requires re-orienting spending priorities away from new highway construction and toward rail and transit.”

    Doesn’t make sense. It takes several years (at least) to plan and get approval for new rail and transit projects. The recession will last maybe one and a half years at most (the length of the longest recession since the end of World War II).

    Interestingly, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin called for more spending on infrastructure to counter the recession – but he emphasized that it should be spending on projects already approved (overwhelmingly highway projects), so the money could be spent quickly enough to affect the recession.

    We are talking about a longer term change in direction from highways to transit, bicycles, and pedestrians. Our main arguments should be 1) that it is necessary to deal with global warming and limits on energy supply, and 2) that it creates more livable, more convenient neighborhoods.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “It takes several years (at least) to plan and get approval for new rail and transit projects.”

    Perhaps that’s what needs to change. What is the effect of the ten year review process on the Second Avenue Subway?

    A recession in private construction is exactly the right time to build infrastructure, but we are bankrupt. It’s a disgrace.

  • Larry: Perhaps it needs to change, but it isn’t going to change in time to affect infrastructure spending during this recession (ie, money spent on construction within the next year or year and a half).

  • Larry Littlefield

    Perhaps the recession will last more than a year and a half. It certainly will in construction. I wouldn’t expect a turnaround there until 2012 or so.

    In any event, and I don’t say this lightly, Sander should be fired for not telling the truth about the MTA’s finances right when he walked in the door. Instead he promised all kinds of improved services now, and vast new transit improvments 50 year from now. It was fantasyland, and just fed the cynicism.

    It was probably because the man who hired him didn’t want to confront the fiscal realities, but that’s no excuse. We’ve had two more years of digging the hole.

    Also, coming from the construction industry that has feasted on the MTA, he needed to tell it the MTA was going to have to pay less, and find a way to make it stick. He hasn’t.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Lee Sander must be the most fired man on the planet, last week a State Senator, bashing the LIRR third track and today L.Littlefied. The guy can’t get a break. Whatever Lee’s faults, and I’m sure there are plenty, not calling out the sorry state of the MTA finances from the get go was not one of them. It is all part of the record, sad though it is, and something I thought Larry frequently articulated in this web-space. Perhaps what Larry is referring to was the huge capital budget he requested when all of the politicians from Brodsky to Schneiderman were telling the MTA, in front of the cameras, to “ask for more money”.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Whatever Lee’s faults, and I’m sure there are plenty, not calling out the sorry state of the MTA finances from the get go was not one of them.”

    Unfortunately it was. The first real indication of what was going on was the revised MTA capital plan issued as part of the congestion pricing debate earlier this year.

    That was a year too late.

    There should have been a new project freeze and other exteme measures the day he took office. Actually, most of the crime was commited before then, but it goes without saying that those in charge earlier were derelict.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Just one example — basing the MTA budget on a level of real estate tranfer taxes that was ridiculous.

  • Charles, you’re definitely right about the majority of the new projects in the pipeline being highway projects — projects that can get started immediately. But there’s also a massively long laundry list of bridges to be replaced, existing roadways to repair, capital transit improvements, and a handful of transit projects ready to go all the same. It’s not entirely related, but do check out Reconnecting America’s new report on all the transit project demand. I believe they have the projects also broken out that are nearest to construction.


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