Did Team Obama Gut Transit Funds From the Stimulus Package?

Reporting on last week’s stimulus letdown — when a proposal by US Rep. James Oberstar’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for $17 billion in mass transit spending was slashed by the Appropriations Committee, while $30 billion in proposed allocations for roads and bridges remained the same — Grist got word that the then-incoming Obama administration may have had a hand in paring down the transportation package.  

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."

Opinion varies on what constitutes "a good deal for transportation infrastructure" at this moment in our nation’s history. (Grist notes that there is some $50 billion in "shovel-ready" transit projects currently in the queue.) But why would a self-professed pro-urban, pro-transit, anti-oil dependence admin pull the plug on the progressive portion of this transportation spending proposal? Why would a speaker who represents downtown San Francisco go along with it?

There is speculation that Obama economic adviser Larry Summers opposed the Oberstar plan, while others think the new admin wants to reevaluate spending formulas in this year’s TEA authorization, allowing an increase in transit funding that could be invested in a more deliberate, effective way — and over a sustained period of time.

Of course, the same care could also be taken before throwing $30 billion at nebulous highway projects

  • JK

    So, highway stimulus money is like Monopoly money and can be tossed around with abandon and transit funding “could be invested in a more deliberate, effective way — and over a sustained period of time.” No thanks. Give transit the same sacks of cash that highways are getting or make the road builders play by the same rules.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ll say it again — I want universal health care financing at the federal level, by October. If we can do it for senior citizens, we can do it for younger generations as well.

    And it exchange, I’d be happy to have all federal infrastructure spending disappear. With all the money the city would save on Medicaid and retiree health care, it could pay for its own infrastructure, based on its own priorities.

    The serfs have a tough enough time with transportation priorities the NYC Council, but at least have a figthing chance.

    Albany is far worse, especially when led by the current generation greed in charge.

    Washington? Where’s our $3 billion per year indefinately for the MTA, Mr. Weiner? Deadline October 2009. But I’ll take universal health care as an acceptable substitute. There you go Weiner, I’m giving you two paths to my vote. No excuses.

  • John

    “But why would a self-professed pro-urban, pro-transit, anti-oil dependence admin pull the plug on the progressive portion of this transportation spending proposal?”

    Because they’re liars. Obama’s actions almost always vary considerably from his rhetoric.

  • Ryan

    I love public transportation there should be more of it, etc. but I feel like people here don’t understand that the theory undergirding the stimulus plan is to spend a lot of money fast. At the state level there’s simply way more projects that can be funded in a short amount of time (There are 49 non-New York states remember). Also, in order to get this through congress you have to demonstrate that the stimulus bill will address the economy’s SHORT-TERM stimulus needs and not burden the economy with the type of LONG-TERM costs that an expansion of public transit would require.

    That said, I think whatever they spend on public transportation is worth the investment, but you have to look at this in the context of a collapsing economy and what is politically feasible in the very short term. Funding for public transportation is great but I think it’s unrealistic not to expect to see it decoupled from a fiscal stimulus bill.

  • Shemp

    What people also don’t get is that “highway” funding is shorthand for money from the Federal Highway Administration, which in New York City and elsewhere (see earlier post on Portland OR’s list) is used for everything from subway station renovation to bike lanes. Basically, the places that are doing the right thing now will be able to do more of it under the recovery bill.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Yeah but Shemp isn’t it a deal where to “do the right thing” in road spending its an 80/20 Fed/State ratio and to “do the right thing” in transit the state has to come up with 50/50?

    The transit piece is the only Fed transfer payment that brings money back to New York from the “donor” states. They consider themselves donors because they burn lots of oil per capita. By their logic, since they waste more oil they should get more of the oil tax. I think that is called a perverse incentive.

    Of course, any of the big urban states who don’t drill oil could get back at the oil patch and the rest of the country by simply taxing oil, imported and domestic, and spending the money on our own transit. We haven’t taken that path,,,yet.

  • Shemp

    As far as I know, the 50/50 is generally applied to big new transit capacity projects like LIRR-GCT. If you know people at the MTA, ask what the federal share is for stuff like track work, subway signals, stations and the like (done from FTA formula funds, not discretionary “new starts” funding).

    On your other point, consider that NY State has essentially 3 gas taxes – the motor fuels tax, the petroleum business tax and the supplemental petroleum business tax. All go into transportation.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (As far as I know, the 50/50 is generally applied to big new transit capacity projects like LIRR-GCT. If you know people at the MTA, ask what the federal share is for stuff like track work, subway signals, stations and the like.)

    The federal share might be 50-50 for buses, which everyone has, and it might be 50-50 for project in other parts of the country, but it is much less here, even for rehabs.

    Not only that, for highways the 80% is guaranteed no matter how high costs go. But for transit projects the FTA requires a “full funding agreement” — the transit agency covers all over-runs. So that massive increase in construction costs for transit here didn’t lead to any additional federal aid. That’s one reason the highway portion of the trust fund went broke and the transit portion did not.

    One thing you can say for federal aid — it is the only cash that has been put into the MTA capital plan for more than a decade. Even MTA funding from the state or city has been borrowed, it’s just that the debt is on someone else’s books.

  • transitioner

    It’s not speculation. Summers believes that highway building results in quicker job creation. And Summers tends to get what he wants. Are there any groups with science-based ammunition to disprove this? Isn’t that what Transportation for America was set up to do?

    I’m disappointed in the Administration for being so short-sighted, but even more disappointed that the advocacy community is not ready to push against the current bill. Oberstar alone can’t save this. The highway lobby can teach us a lot about how to get our voice heard.

  • I don’t think Summers will be around forever though. I suspect things will get exceedingly bad as Obama is trying to work within obstacles that he mistakenly sees as constraints. And at that point the kinds of things he really needs to do and who can make (or rather, is making) them happen will be very clear to him.

    As for taking a page from the highway lobbyists’ book, lobbying and narcolepsy-inducing ads are not the way. A loud, credible, persuasive, ongoing presence making real progress is the way. He’ll come around when he has no other choice.

    In the short term, jobs are good, even highway jobs. I have friends who could have died in the bridge collapse in Minneapolis.


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