Does President Obama Have the Power to Influence Transportation Policy?

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy called for a federal transit funding plan. Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson took baby steps toward starting that program, but Johnson’s true transportation legacy was signing the bill that created the Department of Transportation, bringing all modes under one roof.

Why hasn't President Obama been able to make his mark on transportation policy yet? Photo: ## Post##

Nixon oversaw the creation of Amtrak. Ford had a strong, personal role in rail restructuring when all the railroads were going bankrupt. Carter did deregulation and the first multi-modal surface transportation act. Reagan passed a gas tax increase. George H.W. Bush helped get IS-TEA passed and Clinton signed TEA-21, the biggest transportation bill in history (even adjusted for inflation).

What about George W. Bush? What about Obama? Presidents haven’t been as active in setting and guiding transportation policy in recent years. Neither our current president nor our most recent ex-president really made his mark on transportation at all. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center set out yesterday to figure out whether presidents still wield any power whatsoever in transportation policy discussions. To do so, the Center held a series of panel discussions of its own.

Obama has gone out on a limb in promoting several big transportation ideas, from high-speed rail to an infrastructure bank to a $50 billion job-creating infrastructure program — but none have come to fruition. Why is that?

There’s been a disconnect lately between Congress and the White House, said Emil Frankel of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a high-ranking DOT official under George W. Bush. President Obama has broken with tradition by refusing to submit a draft transportation bill to Congress. He just lays out his ideas and says, “There you are; go write a bill.”

Maybe that’s for the best, though. “If Obama were to lay something out, there’s a certain segment of the House that would just be against it,” said Marcia Hale, the president of Building America’s Future and a veteran of Democratic Party politics. Others agreed: Putting Obama’s name on an initiative is the best way to kill it.

Two months ago, a reporter asked Obama himself whether he still has much persuasive power over Congress. “The issue is not my persuasive power,” he replied. “The question is, can the American people help persuade their members of Congress to do the right thing?”

He was talking about gun violence and spending cuts, areas where the U.S. population is squarely in Obama’s corner, and where Congress takes a different position. But what about infrastructure spending, which Americans still aren’t convinced they really need?

Meanwhile, Obama keeps proposing ideas that even Democrats in Congress have very little appetite for, like an infrastructure bank or a big stimulus-like infrastructure bill to create jobs.

In that context, is it a good thing that the president isn’t promoting, for example, an increase in the gas tax? Perhaps his support would automatically sink the proposal with Republicans, who could label it just another squeeze on middle-class taxpayers from a tax-and-spend president. On the other hand, his leadership on the issue might encourage some in Congress to be less timid about getting behind it.

Frankel also indicated he was frustrated that the president hadn’t shown any leadership on road pricing, which, according to Frankel, is a way to both generate funds and strengthen transit. “These things have to work together,” Frankel said. “But the federal government has been silent about pushing in this direction.”

The president has also been all too willing to abandon a user-pay system for transportation, Frankel said. By proposing programs like his jobs plan or fix-it-first – both $50 billion infrastructure bills to be paid out of the general fund – Obama weakens the user-pay principle. On one hand, by opening up general funds to transportation, Obama would liberate transportation from its reliance on a trust fund teetering on the brink of insolvency. On the other hand, by making transportation reliant on general funds, it makes transportation interests vie for money against every other expenditure under the sun, with no guarantees.

Here’s one place Obama has it right: high-speed rail, the president’s signature transportation initiative. Congress hasn’t been particularly keen to join him on this one, either. The money needed to build it is mind-boggling, and it’s easy to say, in such a constrained climate, that it’s just not possible. But Hale says we just need one line to get up and running and people will have an “a-ha moment.”

“One true high-speed rail line in this country would get people going, ‘Why haven’t we had this before? Why does everybody else in the world have it?’” said Hale. “Can you imagine this country in 50 years if we don’t have any kind of high-speed rail?”

12 thoughts on Does President Obama Have the Power to Influence Transportation Policy?

  1. Sure, road pricing is a way to help fund transit operating and capital. Arguably, it is one of the very few attractive options on the table for funding significant transit improvement and expansion in urbanized areas – an approach that would benefit both highway and transit users, among others.

    That written, if there is not very clear statutory language allocating revenue to transit it simply will not happen – it will all go to highway projects. If that’s the case, there’s no benefit in implementing pricing strategies because they’ll only make it more expensive for people to drive, and especially so for those at the margins of society.

    If we price road use, there needs to be a viable alternative to paying the fee. We don’t need just another honey hole for highway interests to tap into.

  2. Americans in our nation’s urban areas drive elections – it is a fact.

    Obama is right.

    If and when the residents of our nation’s urban areas decide that transit and alternative transportation is important to them, and that they are tired of seeing one highway expansion after another followed by increased congestion – failed investments, that is – then the tide will turn in congress.

    Not until then, unfortunately. In the interim, don’t expect FHWA and the state DOTs to change on their own . . . or by executive order.

    Power to the people, but how do they wield it?

  3. “Can you imagine this country in 50 years if we don’t have any kind of high-speed rail?”

    Umm . . . yeah. I love the idea of high speed rail as much as the next guy, but is it really the transportation solution of the future? It’s still a fixed system, which means that it can’t respond to the kinds of rapid shifts in travel patterns that seem likely to define transportation in the 21st Century. I could easily imagine technological solutions that make physically transporting people around much less necessary in the 21st Century, rending things like high speed rail systems relatively less important to our future.

  4. > It’s still a fixed system, which means that it can’t respond to the kinds of rapid shifts in travel patterns that seem likely to define transportation in the 21st Century.

    Yeah, I hate when metropolises such Los Angeles or San Francisco suddenly up and move.

  5. Flexibility was given as the advantage of buses over trolleys also, but it turns out bus routes typically remain the same for decades. Over time frames like that, where the infrastructure may need to be rebuilt once or twice, it’s just as easy to relocate it if need be. Besides, HSR is mainly to connect major cities. Those aren’t going to move.

  6. The Green Line in Los Angeles is a prime example of what can happen. From Wikipedia: One of the reasons for construction was that the Green Line would serve the aerospace and defense industries in the El Segundoarea. Construction of the line cost $718 million. By the time the Green Line opened in 1995, the Cold War was over, and the aerospace sector was hemorrhaging jobs. Furthermore, during the 1980s, the bedroom communities in the Gateway Cities region of southeastern Los Angeles County were rapidly losing their population of middle-class aerospace workers (primarily whites and blacks), a process that radically accelerated in the early 1990s. The working-class and poor Hispanics who filled the vacuum generally had no connection to the aerospace sector. This rationale for Green Line construction was a principal argument cited by the Bus Riders Union when it contended that MTA was focusing its efforts on serving middle-class whites and not working-class minorities. As a result, ridership has been below projected estimates, averaging approximately 44,000 daily weekday boardings in June 2008.[2]

  7. @Coolebra:disqus says “We don’t need just another honey hole for highway interests to tap into.” The road users are the ones paying for road pricing — it’s their money and they should benefit from it. Diversion of the tax to transit operating and capital is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Use of congestion pricing in Stockholm is working and the fee payers are getting a return on their investment, rather than the highway robbery you advocate. We should look at their system as a good example.

  8. Frank, Frank, Frank – oh, dear.

    Variable rate pricing with a revenue commitment to transit, my friend, is – by far – the best way to cultivate value for those that prefer to drive, or must drive. Take a look a toll roads – drivers pay and get congestion in return. Why? Well, there’s no suitable alternative to driving. Simply charging more only increases the cost of driving and people have to get to work, anyway.

    To illustrate, even the stalwarts of highway redesign and expansion, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), have this to say about the relationship between road pricing, revenue sharing with transit, and road user benefits: “In Section 2 we established that a 10 to 14 percent decrease in traffic on congested freeways will reduce delay by approximately 75 to 80 percent. In Section 3 we established that from 7 to 9 percent of the longer trips in personal vehicles during peak periods are discretionary. In Section 4 we have established that modest pricing signals for private vehicles can reduce traffic enough to significantly reduce congestion and save time for all drivers, while at the same time increasing the “people-carrying capacity” of the roadway, by increasing the use of carpools, vanpools and transit. It therefore appears feasible to restore and maintain free-flow on the freeways in the Metropolitan Washington area, without adding capacity, by applying congestion pricing to the major facilities, and at the same time increasing transit, carpool and vanpool programs [emphasis added].”

    On a similar note, the United Parcel Service CEO provided testimony at a congressional hearing that he would support
    road pricing provided there was value exchange, with value defined as more efficient freight movement by truck. Clearly, reducing highway congestion by 40% or more provides that benefit; however, it can’t work without alternatives to driving.

    Thus, using road pricing revenues to help fund transit is a win-win. No need to hold my band of merry men at bay – they’re aren’t stealing from anyone, they are creating value for . . . everyone.

    Time to head back to Sherwood Forest.


    The secta Subud is a special mixture of Java mysticism, magic and the Dharma (originated from India), which is controlled from above, by a theocratic, authoritarian system: The teaching can be interpreted only by the main leader. The Dharma is about the circulation of our world, where the destruction is a natural part of the system, so that is why Shiva can be one of the most important, central God in their religion.
    The Secta is based on ordered relationship hierarchy.
    The secta is led by a very little group of leaders, who hold the most of the economical power of the Subud.
    For an example, they new HQ of the Subud was planned to be built in Jakarta. It would have a special „boat” shape with a huge chimney.

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