Saturday, January 3, 2009

No Policy Change in the Stimulus?

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

Barack Obama offered another in his 21st century fireside chats, talking again about the economic stimulus plan that will be his first order of business after his inauguration on January 20:

As before, Obama mentioned roads as part of the stimulus, but not rail or transit. Already it's led some transportation bloggers to question Obama's priorities and his overall commitment to policy change. If this stimulus is going to be effective it needs to not prop up a failed status quo, but needs to challenge the freeway-sprawl complex and the state DOTs that still refuse to embrace transit.

The stimulus won't ignore transit entirely, and some funding for rail and bus projects will likely be in there. The bigger concern is the politics - if Obama keeps leaving rail out when he describes fundamental national priorities, it's going to be that much harder to make the policy changes we embarked upon in 2008 stick. At some point Obama is going to have to use the bully pulpit to help Americans see that rail must become a much more central part of our transportation and economic policy. It would be good if he did that at the outset of his administration.

Instead I am hearing reports that policy change will come later in 2009 when the Transportation Equity Act (TEA) comes up for reauthorization. At that time, Congressional insiders claim, we will finally see the bigger shift away from highways and towards passenger rail. Kerry's HSR bill will be taken up around the same time and will likely be a part of that broader policy shift.

It's not how I would do it - politically it makes more sense to open with a call for change, while you have a 75% approval rating. That has a tendency to reduce resistance in Congress. And the implications of rail or highways have broader economic impacts - the steel industry is pushing hard for more transit projects hoping they can get a badly needed boost.

Still, Obama's stimulus can redeem itself if it helps ease state budget deficits. That is currently the #1 threat to California's high speed rail project. Although Arnold proposes $123 million for the California High Speed Rail Authority, a larger use of the Prop 1A funds, and the $950 million intended for other passenger rail are blocked by the state's cash crisis. If the Obama stimulus can come through with $10-$20 billion, or ideally $40 billion, for the state then it would help ease the crisis and ensure that HSR planning and engineering work can continue without interruption.


Rafael said...

I think asking Obama to loan the state of California $40 billion so it can press ahead with HSR while its obstructionist GOP politicians are let off the hook is not a viable proposition. He should insist on an independent analysis of why the Golden State cannot get out of its budget funk by itself. If the 2/3 law has to go before any moeny can flow, so be it ;^)

Wrt HSR, that needs to be part of a strategic investment program to shift the transportation sector off oil and onto electricity. Basic electrochemistry will tell you affordable (partially) electric cars will never achieve high range on grid electricity. HSR is a poor candidate for a make-work project in the first six months of 2009, so that strategic investment may have to wait a few months, except for ongoing planning work.

The question to put to Obama is this: do you want to ride an electric bullet train in the US, running at 220mph on renewable power, before you hand the keys to the White House to the next person?

Spokker said...

I read the story in the middle of a Denny's on my cell phone and when I didn't see rail mentioned anywhere I screaming out, "OOOOOOBBBAAAAAAMMMMAAAA! NOOOOOOO!!!"

He's mentioned rail transit before and just because he didn't this time doesn't really mean much. Let's give the guy some time to think before we jump up his ass.

BruceMcF said...

The talk is littered with phrases that could be spending on energy efficient, energy independent transport ... strategic investment, productivity for the 21st century ... but then again might not be, because of the lack of any specific reference. Which is very frustrating.

As I've mentioned before, state grants for project planning for energy independent transport could indeed be used in California for the CAHSR. While the focus has been on the break ground in three months tranche, a two year stimulus package by rights ought to have room for bringing projects to the stage of being ready to break ground.

Anonymous said...

NOW look we need 15B to start our roadbed ..I dont care where it comes from...find it NOW...

Brandon in California said...

For the love of gawd!

Rafael said...

@ spokker -

what's with the colorful metaphors? That jumping thing was a metaphor, right?

@ k@rep?coms -

the HSR project doesn't need $15 billion right now. What are you going to do, deposit it in a bank account in Liechtenstein?

What CHSRA needs is a commitment by the incoming administration and Congress that they will put in place a dependable process for funding strategic infrastructure projects in stages, as and when they are ready to spend it.

In this context, "strategic" means realistic efforts designed to help shift the transportation sector off oil and onto electricity, preferably generated from renewable sources.

"Project" refers to qualifying efforts that are well planned and executed. It would be inappropriate to throw money at California HSR if its implementation is severely delayed and costs explode due to mismanagement (as opposed to acts of God). The surest way to lose control of a project is to sign a huge check up front with no strings attached. See TARP for details.

Federal money is not free, it's borrowing against future earnings. It's not enough to spend it on things worth having. It must all be spent well.

Spokker said...

"what's with the colorful metaphors? That jumping thing was a metaphor, right?"

I'm just a colorful guy.

It's no metaphor. I actually want to jump into Obama's ass because I bet it smells like Honeycomb Cereal in there. That's how good of a president this guy will be.

I'm just not into analyzing Obama's every move in such a way that's going on here and in the media. He's not president yet.

And also, he may be Jesus but he's no Superman. Give him some time to think about this stuff. Rail isn't the most important issue out there, as much as I wish it was.

Andy Guy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy Guy said...

Indeed, Obama is a key member of the Transit Trio