Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Barack Obama

Roads


Examiner beats drums for war on non-cars

The Washington Examiner's opinion section features five separate fusillades against transit, spending on transit, and the entire idea, incomprehensible to the authors, that some people can happily live their lives primarily getting around using transit and on foot and might actually enjoy it.


One of the places a freeway might be built. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Several, by "conservative" writers and crossposted from "conservative" national publications, follow the typical pattern of such anti-transit screeds, filled with "scare quotes" and namecalling toward people who disagree as "pointy-headed" "bureaucrats," "functionaries" and more to defend government spending on modes of travel they personally prefer.

An Examiner editorial criticizes the Obama administration's meager extra spending on transit as a "war against cars" (of course). The editorial board can't stand spending on "expensive high-speed rail, unprofitable low-speed Amtrak, and other forms of government-subsidized mass transit" ... as opposed to expensive freeways, unprofitable arterials, and other forms of government-subsidized roads.

Scare-quoted words include "investing" (money on transportation projects) and "livability," which apparently is code for "using government funding to force people now living in the suburbs to move back into densely packed central cities where they would have to depend upon mass transit rather than privately owned vehicles." That's instead of the previous policy of using government funding to force people to live in places where they would have to depend on cars even to cross a street without being killed.

That's far from the most comic of the faux-free market arguments, where people actually seem able to argue with a straight face that the government spending money on one mode of transportation is totally just markets at work while spending public money on another mode is socialism.

The most extravagant argument comes from Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, who actually writes this:

If the law of supply and demand were operative, we'd see a smarter approach to improving transportation in America. The supply of cars would create a demand for more roads and bridges to accommodate them, just as food lines outside a grocery store create demand for more grocery stores.
Once again, the government is not building grocery stores. It is building the roads. And Barnes may not have noticed, but in grocery stores, you pay for the food you want. Last calls road pricing a way "to force drivers to put a dollar value on their commute." Like... in the grocery stores, where there's a dollar value on the food?

Meanwhile, Barnes obviously hasn't been on the Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains, or any of the subway systems in dense cities where people are clamoring for more trains and better service. Why doesn't that create demand for transit programs?

Because Barnes is sure they're not useful to anyone. "The simple fact is most people prefer to travel by car because it's convenient, which mass transit rarely is," he claims. Rarely in his experience, perhaps. Sure, driving is more convenient for many people in many cases. Transit is more convenient for other people in other cases.

Barnes argues that all the transit hasn't taken cars off the road, and that transit's mode share has declined. I have to assume he's just being disingenuous and trying to feed red meat to his base, because he must be smart enough to recognize that if you build very little transit and a lot of roads while the nation grows significantly, maybe the overall amount of cars will increase faster than the amount of transit ridership.

What's most frustrating about this argument from "conservative" commentators is that they're doing exactly what they accuse others of: coercing people to take only one mode. Barnes' argument isn't that we need both roads and transit. He only wants roads and nothing else. How does taking away choices create more freedom?

It's just like the groceries. Some people like milk. Others like orange juice. The government is subsidizing the growing of both in this country. But we aren't hearing "conservative" commentators argue that all orange subsidies have to end because adding a few new orange groves hasn't succeeded in curbing obesity all on its own.

Another Barnes assertion claims transit in Washington hasn't curbed congestion. Yet that Texas Transportation Institute report, which tautologically proves that if you build a lot more roads people spend more of their long commutes driving long distances fast instead of short distances slowly, showed that the Washington area has grown a lot since 1999 but without traffic actually getting worse.

The strange logic continues with a piece by Fred Utt of the Heritage Foundation criticizing transportation borrowing by Barack Obama and by Barbara Hollingsworth praising the same borrowing by Bob McDonnell.

Hollingsworth writes, "In order to take advantage of low construction costs, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly agreed to incur $4 billion in debt in order to expand and maintain the commonwealth's extensive highway system, which has become seriously degraded after years of neglect." But Utt decries federal transportation programs as "borrow-and-spend policies" and a "political slush fund."

What's the difference? It's simple: One has some transit, the other doesn't. Also, one executive is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Utt can't abide transit because some people belong to a union. He seems to forget that so do highway builders. Hollingsworth, meanwhile, just hates the Silver Line.

She has three main criticisms: It's expensive, there aren't a lot of people nearby, and the number of people who will take a train to the airport doesn't justify train service. Actually, there's some difference of opinion among transit advocates about the Silver Line's phase 2, from Wiehle Avenue through Dulles and into Loudoun County.

Starting with the third argument, Hollingsworth feeds off the common misconception many people have that this is primarily a "train to Dulles." It's really a train to Tysons and then to some park-and-rides near Dulles as well as the airport itself. Some people will use the train to go to the airport, but most riders in that section will be residents of the area using it to commute.

The Silver Line is expensive, but so are highways; it takes more local dollars because the federal government doesn't contribute as much money to such a project as to an equivalent highway. As with Barnes' claim that the little transit we've built hasn't reduced traffic enough, this argument uses circular reasoning. Because the feds don't pay much for transit, it's expensive; therefore, the feds should stop paying anything at all.

As for there not being a lot of people nearby, as Richard Layman explains, heavy rail transit creates its own population density. The Silver Line will trigger more development in the areas where it will go.

While phase 1 of the Silver Line serves Tysons, an already-dense area that's one of the largest job markets in the nation, phase 2 will primarily serve future development in western Fairfax and in Loudoun. To some, that's an argument against it, since like a rural highway, it's subsidizing far-flung development.

The fifth article, by Jonathan Last from the Weekly Standard, attempts to debunk the idea of induced demand, which he can't abide. It reads like one of those polemics from evolution deniers, full of statements that the "experts" insist something is true, but it can't possibly be.

Last cites 7 separate studies that back up induced demand, but then says it can't be true because if you ask the average person on the street, they'd tell you that of course building highways makes traffic better. Oh, and there was once one study that said perhaps it's overblown. Proof!

One group, he says, even went "spinning off into outer space" by trying to apply game theory. Because we all know that relatively new branches of mathematics never have any real application to existing problems.

Ultimately, this is all a lot of arguing over specifics. Individual studies or cost projections aren't going to change minds. The fact is that road building interests, suburban development interests, and the "conservative" mouthpieces they fund are going crazy that a long-standing, enormous funding imbalance in their favor might be shifting back, even a little bit.

These two pie charts, one from Transit Miami in 2009 and one from Streetsblog yesterday, tell it all:

Few scream more loudly than an interest group used to getting the entire pie, especially during a time when the pie is shrinking due to static gas tax revenues.

Government


Letter: DC already adequately represented on NCPC

Lisa MacSpadden, Director of Public Affairs for NCPC, sent along this response to a recent article:

In your December 2 post, "How Can Obama Do More for DC?" you mentioned that the President, directly or indirectly, controls half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission. You recommended that President Obama appoint a District resident to the Commission to ensure representation by someone who lives in Washington and therefore truly cares about the city.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

You are correct that three of the seats are occupied by the heads of the largest federal landholding agencies, and that one is appointed from Virginia and one from Maryland as required by law. The law also requires that the third appointee serve at-large. This helps to ensure that those outside the National Capital Region are provided the opportunity to have a say in what transpires in a capital city that belongs to all Americans.

Your post did not mention that four of the Commission's seats are held by District officials (the remaining two seats are held by representatives from the House and Senate). The mayor of the District of Columbia holds a seat, as does the chair of the Council of the District of Columbia. In addition, the mayor appoints two District residents to sit on the Commission. I think it would be fair to say the District is well represented given this equates to one-third of the federal Commission's membership.

The District's four representatives are steadfast supporters of District issues. Their participation, and that of the federal and congressional representatives, ensures a balance of local, federal, and national interests. Were the President to appoint a District resident, then the nation at large would lose its voice in planning for America's capital. That would be unfortunate and at odds with the mission of NCPC.

Public Spaces


How can Obama really do more for DC?

Yesterday, President Obama and Mayor-Elect Gray met for lunch. According to Gray, Obama said he "wants to do more for the city."


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

How can he do more? Obviously there are a number of federal programs that give out funding, whether discretionary or formula, and Obama could push for DC in many areas of the federal budget. But the President is very concerned about the deficit, and Congress makes the final budget decisions. What could Obama do for DC that doesn't involve large spending programs?

President Obama already controls a lot of what goes on in DC. He heads the largest employer in the District. Agencies control a great number of buildings downtown. The National Park Service (NPS) controls most of the parkland in the District, from the Mall to individual neighborhood pocket parks.

The President controls, either directly or indirectly, half of the 12 seats on the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC): 3 direct Presidential appointees and 3 ex officio seats for the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior (handled by the Park Service), and General Services Administration (GSA). The Park Service also holds one of the seats on the Zoning Commission.

If these federal agencies, especially Interior and GSA, had strong guidance from the White House and coordinated closely to improve the vitality of DC on and around federal property, they could create some big change. All it really takes is the will to overcome bureucratic inertia.

Here are some specific steps Obama could take right now:

Appoint a high-level DC point person. The simplest item could be a very significant one. There is no one person in the White House in charge of working with the DC government. Obama should appoint such a person at a high enough level to give him or her the power to really coordinate the DC-related work of the cabinet departments and push them to make changes when necessary and when they fit with the President's vision.

Appoint a DC resident to NCPC. Of the 3 Presidential appointees, the law requires one to be from Maryland and one from Virginia. The third appointee is currently Herbert Ames, a real estate agent from South Carolina appointed by President Bush. His term ends next year. The President should pick someone who lives in DC and who truly cares about making the District a better place.

Restrain excessive fortress design at federal facilities. Many federal agencies seem to want their building to be a fortress, partly because everyone is particularly sensitive to security, and partly because it makes agencies feel like they are more important.

Fortunately, NCPC and GSA have been pushing for more federal buildings to engage the street, like the upcoming GSA headquarters modernization which will include ground-floor retail. Require all new or renovated federal facilities in urban areas to contain publicly-accessible retail or food spaces, and avoid a bunker mentality unless it really, truly is necessary.

Direct federal agencies to encourage multimodalism. The President already issued an executive order instructing agencies to try to reduce their carbon footprint. He could specifically push agencies to accommodate bike parking inside their buildings and to put Capital Bikeshare stations outside, for example.

Encouraging transit use is not as simple as encouraging bicycle use. The best thing would be for Congress to extend the increased ceiling for pretax transit benefits, keeping it on an equal footing with the parking benefit. That also means federal workers get a higher transit benefit, helping workers better afford to take transit. Unfortunately, this isn't something Obama can do on his own.

Make St. Elizabeth's a good neighbor. The biggest immediate opportunity for making federal design fit with a community will come at St. Elizabeth's, where DHS is consolidating operations. That will have a lot of security, but there are many ways DHS can also encourage employees to interact with the surrounding community, foster nearby restaurants that are also open to the public, and take transit, streetcar, bike or walk to the complex.

Direct NPS to allow the Circulator and Capital Bikeshare. NPS has exclusive concession contracts for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, including ones for the Tourmobile and for bike rentals. They have been interpreting these contracts to prohibit allowing transit services, including bike transit (Capital Bikeshare), on the Mall.

However, $1 transit service doesn't compete with a $23 tour bus, and a bike meant for under 30 minutes of use to get from one place to another doesn't compete with an all-day bike rental. The White House should instruct NPS to find a way to allow these services immediately.

Direct NPS to treat urban parks differently from rural parks. NPS manages its parks in dense urban areas with the same philosophies as a natural wilderness like Yosemite. People from Colorado primarily wrote the National Mall Plan. But keeping spaces wild is not as paramount of a concern for urban parkland, which needs to contribute to the health of residents.

For example, NPS recently denied permission for DDOT to build a wooden walkway across a part of Fort Totten Park to help people walk to the Metro station. NPS needs a separate division with separate management policies for urban parks, staffed by people with expertise running parks in cities and a passion for making parks good public spaces.

Give DC control over local neighborhood parks. NPS plays a valuable role in our nation (some of my fondest childhood memories are from Minute Man National Historical Park), but it makes no sense that they decide all policy, handle all law enforcement, and have to plow the sidewalks (which they don't do) around most small neighborhood square, circle, and triangle parks throughout the District.

The President could instruct the Park Service to work out a way to turn day to day maintenance and policy of the small parks over to DC while maintaining ownership of the land and NCPC review for permanent changes to the parks. For example, NPS could essentially work out a contract with DC where it outsources park management to DC for these parks.

NPS could pay DC what it spends on those parks, including policing, snow and more. DPR could take over those duties, and handle things like permits for events or retail concessions, but DC wouldn't be able to decide to develop the park into housing, for example.

Local BIDs may also want to contribute to park beautification or "adopt" parks, as they do in many other cities. NPS is currently fairly hostile to public-private partnerships. Turning over the parks' immediate control would make such arrangements possible.

Unify management of lands around the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall keeps pointing out that nobody can really plan for the contiguous park space people generally call the Mall because control is fragmented between the Park Service, the Smithsonian, the Architect of the Capitol, the Secret Service, the National Gallery, the Commission on Fine Arts, NCPC, DDOT, DC DPR, the various memorial commissions, and more.

Create a board composed of federal, DC and citizen representatives to coordinate policy for the and work with NCPC, which could perhaps staff the commission.

And of course:

Publicly support voting rights. This was one of the primary asks from Gray at the lunch. Obama may have said he supports voting rights, but he has done little to make that a part of the national conversation, and most Americans still don't know that DC residents have no vote in Congress.

Obama should take public steps, whether symbolic like restoring the "Taxation without representation" plates to his limousine or meaningful like asking Congress for legislation, that will generate news cycles around DC voting rights. The Post also editorialized for the President to promise to veto Congressional measures that step on DC home rule.

It's great that President Obama wants to have a positive effect on DC. Fortunately, he is in a position to do so, easily and immediately. He can get started on the above initiatives right away.

Budget


Obama's budget includes the $150 million

President Obama released his FY2011 budget today, and it includes the $150 million federal match for WMATA capital needs.

Here's the budget (large PDF, faster Google Viewer). The item is on the page marked 981, which is page 57 of this document.

Last year's budget didn't include the money at first, and area Congressional leaders pushed to add it after the crash. I heard this was an oversight rather than an intentional omission from the new administration.

Streetsblog Capitol Hill dissected more of the budget. It contains sustainability and high-speed rail money, including a rebranded infrastructure bank with $4 billion. It also cuts some programs that tend to be allocated by Congressional earmarks instead of a more objective or executive branch-based process.

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Roads


Flashback: Obama once led push for "Complete Streets"

Streetsblog, which was in many ways the inspiration for Greater Greater Washington, recently hired Elana Schor to cover federal transportation policy. The debate in Congress over the federal transportation reauthorization is starting to heat up, and the decisions there will greatly affect our region and the entire nation. We'll be carrying many of her articles here on Greater Greater Washington as well. Welcome, Elana! - David

With Congress out of town on its Memorial Day break, the nation's capital is a quiet place to bebut all of that will change next week, as the appearance of the House transportation bill is expected to kick off an intense battle to reshape federal policy on transit, bikes, roads and bridges.

obama_1.jpgBefore he was president, he was a fan of "complete streets." (Photo: whitehouse via Flickr)

Many urbanites remember the last congressional transportation bill as a disappointment that pushed a pro-highways approach while forcing transit projects to compete for a small slice of the federal funding pie. But that 2005 transportation clash brought us some instructive moments that escaped the mainstream media's focus at the time.

As a semi-regular feature on Streetsblog Capitol Hill, I'll be looking back at past transportation debates that have the potential to impact the upcoming re-write. For today's installment, let's look at the "complete streets" amendment that fell six votes short of passage in 2005 but had a pretty crucial sponsor: then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).

The "complete streets" amendment submitted four years ago was similar to the legislation that was recently re-introduced in both the House and Senate. It would have required state DOTs to account for bike paths and pedestrian access wherever feasible and required metropolitan planning organizations that serve populations of 200,000 or more to appoint a coordinator for bike-and-ped programs.

Obama did not speak in favor of the amendment, but the future president's early endorsement of complete streets principles provides a powerful tool to livable streets advocates working on this year's transportation bill. Few arguments are as effective in Washington as a charge of flip-floppingto which the Obama administration risks exposing itself if it doesn't support a national "complete streets" policy in this year's bill.

What's more, if senators maintained their past positions, the Obama "complete streets" amendment would almost surely pass into law today. Since the proposal lost by six votes in 2005, 11 GOP Senate seats have flipped to the Democratic column (including party-switcher Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania).

Of course, "complete streets" may be included from day one in the Senate's next transportation bill, especially now that the House has added similar language to its climate change legislation. But that would open the door to a GOP amendment striking "complete streets" from the bill, and to the same tired and false rhetoric that Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) used to kill the Obama amendment in 2005:

What this amendment says is: If you are planning a highway from Leftover Shoes to Podunk Junction in the middle of a state with nobody around, you would have to plan for a bike path. We have a lot of roads through our Ozark hills and farmland where the danger is inadequate two-lane highways. People are not going to ride bicycles along those highways. They need the lanes to drive their cars. Putting an additional planning burden on agencies that don't want or need bike paths is another unwarranted mandate.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog.

Transit


High-speed rail, here we come

The House-Senate conference committee kept the Senate bill's lower $8.4 billion transit funding level instead of the House's $12 billion and cut the somewhat mysterious $5.5 billion transportation grants, but they also gave national high-speed rail an enormous boost to $9.3 billion.

BeyondDC has a handy chart, as does The Transport Politic. The total transit funding represents about 40% of the total spending, a nice jump from the usual 20% federal allocation.

According to the AP via Transportation For America, President Obama and Harry Reid pushed for the HSR funding behind the scenes.

Local transit is still going to suffer from painful budget cuts, as the stimulus doesn't rescue plummeting state and local operating budgets. It also won't fund many of the local transit improvements and repairs we badly need. And the $29 billion for roads means many states are going to add new freeways in remote, undeveloped areas despite Obama declaring the era of sprawl over. Still, this is a very pleasant and welcome surprise.

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