Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why Is Obama Scared Of The Transportation Bill?

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

by Robert Cruickshank

During the debate over the stimulus, it became clear that the Obama Administration planned to use the transportation bill reauthorization to offer the long-term changes in funding and modal priorities they had been promising. Unfortunately, the administration is getting cold feet on pushing the transportation bill this year, setting up a battle with two of the House's leading mass transit advocates, James Oberstar of Wisconsin and Peter DeFazio of Oregon (both are Democrats), as Streetsblog SF reports:

It's no secret that key leaders of the House transportation panel and the White House economic team don't get along -- from quips about shovel skills to a stimulus "shouting match," committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and his top lieutenant, Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), have become two of their party's leading Obama administration skeptics.

But the committee is now fighting a two-front battle, against an administration determined to put off a new six-year transport bill and a Senate that yesterday approved a "clean" 18-month extension of existing law.

Undaunted, Oberstar and DeFazio today pressed U.S. DOT undersecretary Roy Kienitz to clear one thing up: If the administration wants policy changes added to the 18-month stopgap, and if Kienitz agrees that the House bill's "goals are very similar" to the White House's, should the Senate be allowed to press on with its "clean" bill?

Kienitz answered carefully: "I don't think it's my place to try to make policy on that." A nonplussed DeFazio then wondered who would make policy on the transportation extension, if not senior DOT officials.

"I'm coming to learn that's a bit complicated," Kienitz said.

The problem is that the administration is skittish about the tax increases that would be necessary to fund the $500 billion bill Oberstar has worked out. Senator Barbara Boxer has offered support for indexing the gas tax to inflation, and DeFazio has proposed a 0.01 percent tax on oil speculators, but both are unpalatable to an administration looking at a major battle over taxes to fund the health care reform plan currently dominating the Congressional agenda.

Instead, Obama wants to extend the existing transportation bill for 18 months - kicking it into 2011, past the November 2010 elections. It's not exactly an act of leadership, but then this administration is making a mark for itself as being fundamentally reactive on virtually every major policy issue it is confronted with. Setting the agenda and systematically building support for it and selling it to lawmakers and the public - in other words, doing the stuff that every president has done since at least FDR - does not come naturally to the Obama Administration.

Oberstar is livid about the delay, but anger crosses party lines, with Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich calling for at most a 12-month extension but would like Obama to get serious about the transportation bill itself. As Streetsblog's Elana Schor noted that the US Chamber of Commerce wants a new transportation bill and is willing to lobby to get it.

Another factor in the complicated fight is the fact that the highway trust fund is quickly becoming insolvent. This is not a new situation - it has been in trouble for nearly a decade owing to anti-tax sentiment - but it is another reason why an extension of the existing bill isn't itself a simple solution.

Ultimately the Obama Administration is going to have to resolve its budding identity crisis. Is it really an agent of change, as the inclusion of $8 billion for HSR in the stimulus indicated? Or is it dedicated to preserving the status quo, just without the insane misanthropy of the Bush-Cheney years? The transportation bill is one area where the administration is going to have to choose, and soon.

36 comments:

Rafael said...

Obama just wants to get health care and energy bills under his belt first. Surface transportation is important, but Congress just can't do everything all at once.

Meanwhile, USDOT has received 278 grant applications for HSR projects. There is clearly nationwide demand for improving passenger rail, it's a very popular policy direction. The more fanciful proposals will be winnowed out quickly enough once USDOT prioritizes those applications that are backed by funding at the state level.

The GOP may be opposed to taxes on ideological grounds, but I don't believe that still represents the majority view among voters in the country. What bothers Joe Average is huge deficits to bail out greedy bankers and favorable regulation/juicy contracts for BFFs of elected officials while investments in civilian infrastructure and essential social services are neglected.

The concept of fixing potholes, repairing dangerous bridges and expanding rail transit all make eminent sense to just about everyone - even if there is plenty of discussion on the details. A small hike in federal gas taxes would be peanuts compared to the roller coaster motorists had to put up with during the Bush years. Paying for passenger rail amounts to an insurance policy against total gridlock as well as rapid run-ups in prices at the pump.

What I don't get is why Obama would want to postpone the transportation bill for 18 months rather than say, six. Dems have both the presidency and a filibuster-proof majority in Congress, a constellation that does not come around frequently - and usually doesn't last for very long.

Spokker said...

We need to spend, spend, spend.

In the video above video Paul Krugman said, "Rail is something that needs special consideration."

Andrew said...

The gas tax hasn't been adjusted for 15 years, get with it boys. You can't get something for nothing.

TomW said...

I think the new transport bill have more cross-party support in eth senate than health care ever will. Even when Bush wanted to cut Amtrak funding, Republicans ignored him because they kenw how much their constituants valued the services... if this can get time in the senate, it should pass, even with the increase in fuel tax required.

I think Robert and Rafael together identify the reasons: Obama wants to focus on the economy and energy(his biggest promises), and really doesn't want a third battle involving tax increases to the mix. I think the way forward would be for the bill's proponants to work out what tax increase would pass without major senate (or house) battles, and go from there.

Morris Brown said...

Raphael writes:


Meanwhile, USDOT has received 278 grant applications for HSR projects. There is clearly nationwide demand for improving passenger rail, it's a very popular policy direction.
.

Rather than reflecting a nationwide demand for improving passenger rail, what these applications represent is if the Feds are giving away free money, we want as much of it as possible."

Jack said...

Not to hard to see what's going on here. Like others said, Health Care and Energy are the topics of the day.

I also imagine that there going to need a second stimulus in the fall, and they don't want to add yet another half trillion dollars to the deficit.

YesonHSR said...

He said in his campain that now is not the time to raise gas taxes now they cant agree on how to get this thing thru so they will delay till after the elections.I think this bill is more important than health care at this point and has support from key people in bolth parties and is a job creator and leaves something worthwile
We will HAVE to have this bill in place by 2011 to really get this project underconstruction

YesonHSR said...

Boxer stated the gas tax would have to be doubled to fund this..gee 36 cents instead of 18. shows how skiddish they are are right now about any tax increase no matter how worthwile.I do think Oberstar is right and Obama wants this aslo its his advisors pushing him to dealy.and Boxer..up for relection

ambrown said...

just a quick correction, Oberstar is a congressman from Minnesota, not Wisconsin.

love your blog!

DBX said...

People in Washington persistently draw the wrong political lessons, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. To average Joe Voter, Obama is the new thing, and therefore the only thing under the circumstances that has decent poll numbers. Obama's advisers and members on the Hill are making too many assumptions about voter knowledge of the issues. All the average voter sees is Congress as an arena for horsetrading and obstruction, and that's the genre that Boxer's recent behavior fits into. If the Administration doesn't want to join Congress on the scrapheap of voter popularity, they had better get moving and soon, so that people actually start to SEE some results. Doesn't matter whether it's the local residential street that's gradually deteriorating from pavement to dirt, or that shiny new high speed rail project that never seems to get out of the consultant's Powerpoint file.

mike said...

I should also mention that the Boeing Vertol LRVs were a direct result of a "Buy America" program that forced SF MUNI & Boston MBTA to buy an American LRV instead of an off-the-shelf European LRV. The idea was to convert some of the defense factories that were shutting down at the end of the Vietnam War to produce an American LRV (sound familiar to some of the proposals here?).

For those that don't want to bother reading the link, the short story is that the Boeing Vertol LRVs were so unreliable that MBTA started cannibalizing its most recently delivered LRVs for spare parts just to keep the LRVs that were delivered a couple years earlier running. So many cannibalized LRVs were piling up that it would be a PR nightmare, so MBTA started towing the cannibalized LRVs to an abandoned tunnel in the middle of the night so that the public would not realize how bad the cars were. Eventually the newspapers figured out what was going on, there was public outcry, and MBTA successfully sued Boeing Vertol for damages and the right to refuse the last batch of cars (which, of course, then ended up in SF).

Is this what we really want? Perhaps a few of the "deniers" want this, simply so that they can say "I told you so," but I don't think anyone else does.

mike said...

Sorry, the last post was intended for the previous thread. Please ignore.

Alon Levy said...

What bothers Joe Average is huge deficits to bail out greedy bankers and favorable regulation/juicy contracts for BFFs of elected officials while investments in civilian infrastructure and essential social services are neglected.

On the contrary, polls that ask people straight up whether they support tax increases or higher deficits reveal majority support for deficits.

In the video above video Paul Krugman said, "Rail is something that needs special consideration."

Krugman is not an expert on transportation policy. He just likes rail for aesthetic and political reasons. His opinion on the issue is no more informed than this of his ally Brad DeLong, who's proud of his Prius and seems to be an anti-transit NIMBY.

Gary said...

What is ironic to me is often hear this need to focus on energy plan and health care first. Transportation consumes an enormous portion of our energy, and our broken transportation system is a health risk, both indirectly through pollution and cancer risk, and directly through mass fatalities.

As someone under 30, if I die young it's most likely going to because of an automobile accident, and even as someone who doesn't drive, biking and walking still present that risk. If I need to use my health insurance, odds are it will be to treat injuries from falling off my bike after some car driver cuts me off or slams their car door into me. Typically 40,000 Americans die directly from automobile crashes a year and I have no idea how many would be added to that from other automobile related issues like lung cancer along freeways. Studies show cities with more transit use, walking and biking are healthier, less obese and with less heart attack risk.

Transportation is an energy issue, and transportation is a health issue.

We've got no money for toys! said...

You're just a bunch of liberals infatuated with this train. In your opinion everything should get trampled by your pet project, which by the way, you want all taxpayers to fund, even though very few will benefit from it. There is no empirical evidence that this train will significantly decrease highway traffic or deaths on the road. Traffic has increased steadily in every country where high speed trains exist.

Jack said...

@toys

First, I'm a conservative and I support the train.

Can you please back up your accusations with sighted facts. It documented extensively here on this blog that HSR reduces short-haul flight traffic. That alone makes it worth the invesment, and it's not even the biggest advantage.

Try again.

nonimbys said...

@toys...goneon66 sound like a name you ues?

jim said...

this is good news for the bar area more rail moving forward

Randy said...

noticed this article:

http://sanfrancisco.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/stories/2009/07/20/story2.html?b=1248062400^1862008

mike said...

@Morris Whether your interpretation is correct will depend on whether USDOT requires matching local funds for any grants. I don't believe they have announced a firm requirement yet, but it wouldn't surprise me if they ultimately reject all applications that don't include a local match. At that point, it will no longer be about getting "free money" from the Feds, since the only way you will get money for a project is if you're willing to spend your own money on that same project. Which is how it should be.

@Jim That announcement is "good news" only if you like your rolling stock to be heavy, inefficient, and expensive to maintain.

Anonymous said...

@Jim That announcement is "good news" only if you like your rolling stock to be heavy, inefficient, and expensive to maintain.

And over-staffed by a crew of engineer, conductor and assistant conductor performing Important Safety Critical tasks like deploying bridge plates and placing hat checks, all deliciously 1950s-like

Allll abooooooooard ding ding toot toot

jim said...

@ anon Yes I do prefer that americans have good jobs and safe transportation thank you.

besides being fra compliant means flexibility in future extension, row sharing, equipment sharing/borrowing etc all o f which is currently done among agencies.

If I can't have my french TGV then you can't have your FRA non compliance.

We'll just just do everything the with the good old fashion american tried and true, red white and blue method. fine with me.

jim said...

besides didyou miss the part were freight traffic will be sharing the row. Ill tell you what, when Im on a train now, I'm very confident knowing that if there is a crash, that SOB is gonna hold together pretty well. Im gonna get tossed, but not crushed. I prefer it that way.

Rafael said...

@ jim -

you really need to watch that jerking knee. Remember Chatsworth? A safety philosophy based on adding more shteel does not protect rail passengers in train-on-train collisions. It protects freight rail operators' bottom line.

SMART, by itself, is too small to overturn decades of FRA rulemaking in favor of the freight industry. However, the PRIIA mandated investments in positive train control by 2015, an active safety technology in widespread use all over the world (in various guises).

In addition, Caltrain has proven that modern, lightweight EMU designs are at least as crashworthy in grade crossing accidents as FRA compliant equipment. Passengers trains should be as light as possible to minimize operations overheads and associated subsidies.

Daniel Jacobson said...

@toys

get a life.

luis d. said...

I have a suggestion, Why doesn't every other state that want's HSR put up at least 25% (of their own money) of the total funding that they are requesting in order to receive HSR stimulus? California becoming the model for other states. We've got $9.5B, what do they got?

Some of these other state projects only cost $3B-$10B while ours is $45B. Doesn't make sense for them to get completly funded by the Govm't while we don't, I don't think we should (would be nice though) be anyway.

BruceMcF said...

mike said...
"@Jim That announcement is "good news" only if you like your rolling stock to be heavy, inefficient, and expensive to maintain."

Reading through the article more closely, the heavier FRA compliant railcars are about as energy efficient as the lighter railcars, since of course energy efficiency would be measured in passenger-miles per gallon, not railcar-miles per gallon.

The clincher, of course, is that the lighter railcar in the running could not be easily converted to run off the wires, if they later electrify the corridor, while the heavy-rail compliant railcars can be.

Generically, we would be better off with a regulatory class for lighter railcars, especially for higher speed rail, since the energy efficiency penalty of the extra weight goes up with higher speeds.

However, it makes quite a lot of sense for SMART to duck that regulatory challenge if there are in any event substantial reasons to prefer the heavy freight rail compliant railcars in the running.

Anonymous said...

The clincher, of course, is that the lighter railcar in the running could not be easily converted to run off the wires, if they later electrify the corridor, while the heavy-rail compliant railcars can be.

You don't seem to understand the difference between the compliant rail car concept and the Stadler product.

The former doesn't exist. The latter can be bought off-the-shelf. The specification for the former is yet to be written, so it can be "easily converted" inasmuch as it's "easy" to write another requirement for the future ability to just slap on a pantograph and transformer. Piece of cake, right?

By the time SMART constituents realize that their non-existent, highly customized, one-of-a-kind train is overweight, years behind schedule, unreliable and massively over budget, it will be too late.

mike said...

You don't seem to understand the difference between the compliant rail car concept and the Stadler product.

Richard is absolutely right here. Of course the manufacturers claim, "Oh sure, we can build an FRA compliant vehicle that is just as efficient and reliable and existing DMUs, blah blah blah." Simple physics dictates that the reality will turn out to be otherwise.

Bombardier Alstom claimed that Acela Express would be fully FRA Tier II compliant while still being perfectly efficient, reliable, stable at high speeds, etc etc. It is FRA compliant, but none of the other stuff has turned out to be true. The first clue might have been that they felt the need to spec 12,000 horsepower for a 320 passenger trainset. In comparison, both the TGV Duplex and the ICE 3 have 12,000 horsepower for around 600 passengers.

BruceMcF said...

mike said...
" "You don't seem to understand the difference between the compliant rail car concept and the Stadler product."

Richard is absolutely right here. ...
"

That's not Richard, that's a cowardly Anony-Mouse.

"Of course the manufacturers claim, "Oh sure, we can build an FRA compliant vehicle that is just as efficient and reliable and existing DMUs, blah blah blah." Simple physics dictates that the reality will turn out to be otherwise."

So what're their track records on delivering on their promises? Nippon Sharya's "Buy USA" subsidiary has delivered 800+ railcars in 17 orders to 6 US customers ... how many of those railcars were, as the cowardly Anony-mouse suggested, "By the time SMART constituents realize that their non-existent, highly customized, one-of-a-kind train is overweight, years behind schedule, unreliable and massively over budget, it will be too late." Indeed, they claim that they have never delivered late.

The claim on energy efficiency is not, of course, that the heavy freight rail compliant railcars consume no more energy than the Stadler railcars, but that they have higher passenger capacity per car.

Alon Levy said...

Transportation is an energy issue, and transportation is a health issue.

Transportation is an energy issue, kind of, and a minor health issue.

In terms of oil imports, transportation is important, but local transit is more important than HSR. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it's fairly important, but is secondary to converting the electricity grid to carbon-free, cutting industrial emissions, and increasing building efficiency.

In terms of health, only about 10% of lung cancer deaths in the US are due to pollution, industrial or automotive. The remaining 90% are from smoking.

Obesity is high in the suburbs, but even higher in poor inner cities, which may have low car use but have even less access to full-service supermarkets. In the Bronx, which has a rock bottom car ownership rate, the reported obesity rate is 30%, compared with a national average of 23%. Such areas need health care, not more public transit.

jim said...

ok ok ok whatever just let them do whatever gets their trains running and some people off that stretch of 101 - for those of you in socal, the marin sonoma portion of 101 is still basically a dirt cow trail with bay area traffic on top of it. Its the dumbest most underbuilt highway in I have ever seen in an urban area - oh yeah - guess why - the folks up there didn't want to widen it because once they got thier homes - they didn't want more development to follow. so they kept voting against widening it. Also, when there was talk of bart coming up there - I know people up there who actually told me personally that they didn't want bart to come up there because it would make it too easy for people from oakland to get up there. Can you believe it? I was all "are you kidding me?" and they were adamant about it.

Its the california way of doing things now.

I guess with smart they figure eastbay people will have to bart under the bay, then ferry to the north then transfer to smart and maybe that will be too much effort. and you know with HSR, gang members from riverside will be able to zip right up to Palo Alto to wreak havoc. That's their plan. Of course what they don't realize is the Palo Altons will try to recruit them to do their yards. Its going to be chaos I tell you.

luis d. said...

@ jim

"they didn't want bart to come up there because it would make it too easy for people from oakland to get up there."

They said the exact same thing about Bart to the Tri-Valley (Dublin/Pleasanton) and we got it anyway. Twelve years later, I don't see swarms of Gang members coming out of the Dublin/Pleasanton Bart station! All I see is people with their breifcases, coat's and newspapers.

Now some people say the same thing about the Livermore BART extension! It's ridiculous!!

We all know it's all because people are still prejudice and racist's that we are held back! Most of them hear Oakland and think of blacks. Either that or they are afraid of Commuting Mutant's or some B.S, lol. I don't know!

Anonymous said...

Oakland drug dealers have been commuting to San Francisco on BART for years to take advantage of the permissive atmosphere and buyers with money. No doubt they will heading down to San Jose on BART too when it opens.

Business is business.

luis d. said...

@ anon

Yeah, but think about it. Is it the Drug dealers fault, or is it the buyers fault? If money presents itself could you blame the drug dealer?

If people in Sonoma County are willing to buy from drug dealers, then who can you blame? But if their are only "rich white folks" up their then you have nothing to worry about.

Drug dealers are only in business as long as there is a market for them.

BruceMcF said...

Alon Levy said...
"In terms of oil imports, transportation is important, but local transit is more important than HSR."

In terms of oil imports, what is important about transport is car miles driven and long haul road freight. For the first, local transit, regional transport, and inter-regional transport are not rivals, but complements.

"In terms of health, only about 10% of lung cancer deaths in the US are due to pollution, industrial or automotive. The remaining 90% are from smoking.

Obesity is high in the suburbs, but even higher in poor inner cities, which may have low car use but have even less access to full-service supermarkets.
"

Odd that getting killed or crippled in traffic accidents doesn't count as a health issue.