Barack Obama released another entry in his 21st century version of the fireside chat yesterday, a YouTube video on economic stimulus. The key section:
"Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money."
The "roads and bridges" comment has generated criticism from across the transit blogs, including this excellent article from Trains for America. The Transport Politic believes that the signs remain good that "much of this money will in fact go to non-automobile-based transportation," citing Joe Biden's comments on Tuesday.
I'm not sure I agree, actually. What seems to be unfolding is a dual-track approach to infrastructure spending in DC: an economic stimulus that emphasizes immediate projects, many of which will be obsolete 20th century transportation like roads; and a long-term infrastructure investment package that will give a bigger boost to sustainable transportation like HSR. Biden said some good things at the National Governors Association meeting but that is being overshadowed by persistent reports that Obama wants to use the stimulus to fund projects that are ready to go within 180 days. His YouTube speech gives a lot of credence to that view.
A dual-track infrastructure approach strikes me as a fundamentally flawed way to handle the current crisis, especially if the first and more immediate track directs billions towards roads. That's exactly what we should NOT be doing with our stimulus money. Roads don't build long-term economic growth, unless we're planning to follow Robert Toll's insane advice and reinflate the housing bubble. The nation's bridges do need repair and that's fine, but we need new road capacity like we need a hole in the head.
Economic stimulus should meet two needs at once: produce immediate jobs and spending, and fuel long-term growth. FDR's New Deal projects did exactly that - the nation's nascent highway network needed a LOT of investment and improvement in 1933, from roads to bridges. The New Deal helped seed the economic boom of the 1950s in that way. They didn't sit around building canal towpaths.
Obama's stimulus must provide the basis for 21st century prosperity - and that means sustainable infrastructure projects need to be accelerated and funded so that they can get built. Electric rail meets the twin needs of any economic stimulus very well. It should be included, or even made the centerpiece, of an early 2009 stimulus plan.
I'm not concerned that Obama is backtracking on support for HSR. He is likely to embrace the Kerry HSR plan. But that plan isn't large enough to meet the nation's HSR needs.
More importantly, economic stimulus is a sure political winner. If HSR funds are enfolded within a stimulus package it becomes very difficult for Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats (Southern conservatives who generally do not support sustainable transportation) to block it.
For a candidate who campaigned on a theme of change, Obama is showing himself to be a maddeningly cautious politician who prefers to fall back on the old ways rather than embrace something new but sensible. Perhaps the criticisms of his perceived inexperience stung more than we thought. Even from a political perspective it makes sense to include HSR in an immediate stimulus bill - it not only demonstrates support for sustainable infrastructure, but it will provide greater political returns as the economic benefits roll in. Obama needs to not be thinking about his political position in summer 2009 but in summer 2012. The medium-term view would suggest that a nation at work on sustainable infrastructure is a political winner for Obama, and when the projects are completed and provide the foundation for 21st century prosperity the way the New Deal infrastructure projects did in the 20th century, Obama's party would reap the lasting benefits.
There is very little to be gained, and a great deal to be lost, by returning to a failed 20th century model. As Logan Nash at Trains For America wrote:
But in talking to people in both Tennessee and Minnesota, I’ve come to believe that people are fundamentally interested in passenger rail. They’d like to be able to get out of their cars every once in a while, but they just don’t think it’s convenient as it stands now. They’re also concerned about the massive monetary investment rail requires. But of course, we’re already spending $700 billion, why not put some of that towards a system that can improve quality of life, spur commercial development, and help our environment?
Barack Obama and Joe Biden are exactly the people who could raise these points, who can make a case for investing in HSR, Amtrak, and transit. And they seem to want to. You can feel it bubbling under their well-practiced political veneer. Maybe that’s enough. A more well-rounded Secretary of Transportation and even a neutral administration would be a vast improvement. And if some of that “infrastructure” money is tagged for rail improvements, that’s good news even if it’s kept quiet. But much more progress could be made if our newly elected leaders would be bold enough to bring this topic to the foreground.
That progress will only be made if we organize to make it happen. It's time for transit activists online and offline to start getting involved and helping Americans demand that our political leaders provide sustainable, sensible stimulus.