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Posts about Barack Obama


President Obama proposes a "fix-it-first" program for roads

In last night's State of the Union address, President Obama launched a "Fix-It-First" program to repair aging infrastructure and put people to work.

The "enhanced" State of the Union. Image from

The president even took an indirect jab at officials who would rather build new than fix existing infrastructure, saying, "I know you want these job-creating projects in your district; I've seen all those ribbon-cuttings."

So, tonight, I propose a "Fix-It-First" program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.

Obama has proposed infrastructure investment many times before, and always with a heavy tilt toward repair and maintenance, but never such an explicit mandate to "fix it first." By keeping existing transportation infrastructure in good condition, officials can save the public from the expense of unnecessary road expansion projects.

However, he did give a nod to some new infrastructure he'd like to see: notably, high-speed rail.

"Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire," Obama said, "a country with deteriorating roads and bridges or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids."

The president also proposed a "Partnership to Rebuild America" to attract private capital for infrastructure investment "to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden."

In his speech, Obama spent far more time talking about energy and climate change than transportation.

American-produced wind, solar, and natural gas topped his energy platform, but he wasn't above bragging, "We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years." He delighted in the "natural gas boom" and the fact that his administration has been "cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits."

He calls it his "all-of-the-above plan."

He also asked Congress to come up with a "bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," like the Climate Stewardship Act, a cap-and-trade bill John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a decade ago.

Then he hedged against Congress's ability to break through gridlock—especially on environmental issues. "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he said, pledging to take executive actions to reduce pollution, adapt to climate change, and pursue more sustainable sources of energy. He highlighted the urgency:

Now, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late.

His goal: cutting in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. Not the energy used, just the energy wasted. I'm not sure how he defines and quantifies wasted energy.

Read his entire speech here or watch the enhanced version, with explanatory graphics, here.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.


Presidential debate again ignores urban issues

Listen to the national candidates talk, and you'd think American cities don't exist; there is no form of transportation other than driving. A number of bloggers have pointed out how last night's debate, like its predecessor, conspicuously didn't talk about cities.

Photo by mgstanton on Flickr.

At Next American City, Matt Bevilacqua writes:

Neither candidate uttered the word "city." At all. Go ahead, check this debate transcript from ABC News. ...

Urban advocates have raised this complaint many times before: During national campaigns, when pundits and politicos are bickering over everything from reproductive health to drilling for oil to the debt ceiling, issues specifically related to cities get the short shrift.

Republicans hardly ever talk about urban America anymore. ... Though this year's Democratic National Convention had a roster full of big-city mayors, their time in the spotlight largely yielded only sentimental personal narrativesnot much about what they do to make cities function daily, and not much about the needs of the people they serve.

It's not like there weren't moments last night when either candidate could have, at least in passing, addressed the concerns of the country's urban-dwellers. ... [D]uring the discussion on economic growth, Obama could have turned to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to defend his record. Established during his first term, the partnership has done wonders for economic development in urban neighborhoods.

Streetsblog's Ben Fried wishes cities or transportation policy came up in the answer to a question about energy:
QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?
Fried says, "Let's imagine the contours of the straightforward, leveling-with-America response that never came:"
OBAMA: Yes, I do agree with Secretary Chu that it is not the job of the Energy Department to lower gas prices, any more than it's the job of the Commerce Department to lower the price of tin or cotton.

But there's a lot we can do to become more resilient in the face of oil price shocks. We can give people real transportation choices—invest more in transit, and in making our streets safer—so you aren't forced to burn a gallon of gas every time you need to pick up some groceries.

My administration has started us down a smarter path with the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Department of Transportation's TIGER program. These programs are laying the groundwork for a 21st Century transportation system that makes our communities more productive and efficient while reducing our addiction to oil. If we make these investments, not only will we free ourselves from constantly worrying about prices at the pump, we'll also stave off the disaster of climate change and prevent the kind of droughts and other extreme weather events that are battering America.

Instead, the President talked about (and then starting arguing with Romney about) how much they've increased oil production. Which is not just about furthering our addiction to a dwindling resource, but also economically silly for anyone who realizes that oil is a world market.

Matt Yglesias posted a great chart showing that gas prices in the US, Canada, and Japan move in almost precise lockstep; the only difference is the size of the country's gas tax. Ours, of course, is extremely low compared to other industrialized nations.


Transportation in Congress roundup: Leaders agree on extension, GOP would kill Amtrak, & Obama proposal

A lot has been going on in Congress around transportation policy this week, and Tanya Snyder has been on top of it at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. Here are a few quick excerpts from her latest articles, which you can read in full on the Streetsblog site.

House and Senate agree on 6-month transpo extension

Photo by THE Holy Hand Grenade! on Flickr.
Just days after a Senate committee asked the full chamber to consider a four-month extension of SAFETEA-LU, new negotiations have replaced that idea with a six-month extension at current spending levels. The bill also extends the gas tax. ...

The extension is a clean one, with no changes in policy. That means bike/ped funding, which has been under threat over the last week, will remain for the next six months, at least. And the extension will be funded by the same 18.4 cent federal gas tax the U.S. has had since 1993, which was also due to expire September 30 and which is also renewed by this action.

The extension will stick to current funding levels, authorizing $24.78 billion in spending from the Highway Trust Fund for the first half of FY2012 (which begins October 1). That's almost $19.8 billion for highways and $4.2 billion for transit.

That's far more than the FY2012 budget just passed by the Transportation and HUD Appropriations subcommittee in the House, which agreed to $27.7 billion for highways and $5.2 billion for transit for the entire year. Although this extension can authorize more spending than that, actual spending levels are up to the appropriators. Experts say that at this level, most of the money would go to pay states back for projects already built, and new highway project funding could be cut by as much as 75 percent.

But higher spending levels also have their down side. "Maintaining current highway and transit spending levels for any period of time deepens the Highway Trust Fund's revenue hole," writes Jeff Davis, noting that according to the CBO, "the Highway Account of the Trust Fund will run out of cash at these spending levels in the first few months of calendar year 2013, with the Mass Transit Account running dry a year or so behind that)."

Read more »

Rail advocates: House bill would kill Amtrak

The 2012 transportation budget passed by a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee yesterday cut all high-speed rail funding and slashes Amtrak's operating grant by 60 percent. What's more, it forbids Amtrak from using that money to fund short corridors.

Ridership on those short corridors grew five percent in the last year (PDF). Twenty-seven train lines, including several in and out of Chicago, would suddenly see their federal funding disappear, if the House budget were to become law. That would only leave the Northeast Corridor and a handful of cross-country routes; half Amtrak's ridership would be cut instantly.

According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a rail advocacy group, the danger goes further than just the short corridors. The organization asserts that "the bill really would kill all of Amtrak because loss of the short corridors would cut revenues and balloon costs for Northeast Corridor and national network (overnight) trainsÖ Overhead costs—such as for station facilities and maintenance back shops—which now are shared among routes would be dumped on the surviving trains. For example, the Texas Eagle would become the sole user of the St. Louis and Fort Worth terminals and six Illinois stations. And Amtrak's Chicago terminal costs would be borne solely by eight overnight trains."

Read more »

Good news and bad news: Obama's plan would work, but GOP won't pass it

[Friday] morning brought some useful indicators about the outlook for President Obama's jobs bill. Good news first: Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, says President Obama's job creation plan will likely add 1.9 million jobs, cut the unemployment rate by a percentage point, and grow the economy by 2 percent.

The plan includes $50 billion for infrastructure, with an emphasis on transportation and schools, and the creation of an infrastructure bank capitalized at $10 billion. ...

Despite Moody's upbeat analysis of the president's proposal, stocks tumbled [Friday] morning. According to Bloomberg, the gloom wasn't about the merits of the plan but the likelihood of Congressional passage. "Even as President Obama made an effort to put that plan together," said James Dunigan, chief investment officer in Philadelphia for PNC Wealth Manage­ment, "there's not a whole lot of confidence that Congress will pass [it]."

Read more »


Debt deal could mean more painful cuts for transportation

The House and Senate are getting close to voting on a deal, reached over the weekend, to raise the debt ceiling and cut spending.

Photo by Gary Denness on Flickr.

There's nothing in the legislative text that says anything specifically about transportation or the Highway Trust Fund, but it's clear that the cuts mandated in the agreement will affect all sectors. This comes after several rounds of budget cutting this spring.

Although some key programs, like high-speed rail, were high-profile victims at that time, solid investments like TIGER and other livability initiatives survived. Some of the cuts were really phantom savings, cutting contract authority that was never going to be used anyway. There are no more easy cuts left to be made in transportation.

The weekend's debt deal trades a $900 billion raise in the debt ceiling (accomplished in two stages) for $917 billion over the next decade in discretionary spending cuts—reducing domestic discretionary spending to the lowest levels since Eisenhower was president—and including $350 billion in defense cuts—the first defense cuts since the 1990s.

Later this year, the debt ceiling will be raised by another $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion, depending on the deficit reduction recommended by a special new bi-partisan, bi-cameral committee and agreed to by Congress. Alternately, if Congress passes a balanced-budget amendment (the preference of many Republicans), that would satisfy the conditions for raising the debt ceiling.

In the absence of such an amendment, if committee members can't come to an agreement, or Congress fails to pass their recommendations, across-the-board cuts will automatically be implemented, cutting equally from defense and non-defense spending. Medicare, social security, and some other social safety net programs would be exempted.

After seeing discretionary spending cut time after time with no sacrifices demanded of the defense sector, it's remarkable that social programs, not defense, were the ones shielded from the painful cuts. Meanwhile, by spreading cuts around to a greater number of agencies, including massive spenders like the Pentagon, each affected agency is affected less.

Still, infrastructure spending is vulnerable. The White House fact sheet on the debt deal, in the section about the automatic cuts triggered by a failure to act on the committee's recommendations, says:

If the fiscal committee took no action, the deal would automatically add nearly $500 billion in defense cuts on top of cuts already made, and, at the same time, it would cut critical programs like infrastructure or education. That outcome would be unacceptable to many Republicans and Democrats alike—creating pressure for a bipartisan agreement without requiring the threat of a default with unthinkable consequences for our economy.

Under the normal spending cuts regime (not the nuclear option of the automatic, across-the-board cuts) the Department of Transportation is grouped with all other discretionary spending for cuts. The Highway Trust Fund is not discretionary, since it has its own funding source.

I asked Senate staffers if any of this will make it harder for the Finance and EPW Committees to justify spending $12 billion more than trust fund receipts, as spelled out in the Senate transportation bill—even if that $12 billion comes from another budget item and doesn't add to the deficit. No response yet.

Another Senate staffer says that while there are not cuts specific to transportation, the cuts will be "pretty devastating to every discretionary program."

In addition to spending cuts and the possibility of tax reform in the committee recommendations, the expiration in early 2013 of the Bush tax cuts on the rich also ensures some deficit reduction. If more savings aren't found, the president says he will veto an extension of those tax cuts. The White House estimates that would generate nearly $1 trillion; other estimates have put the added revenue closer to $700 billion over ten years.

In his sales pitch to House Republicans [PDF], Speaker John Boehner is trumpeting his victory in keeping tax increases at bay—and indeed, for now, President Obama's proposals to close loopholes on the oil industry and corporate jets are not in the bill. But the 12-member fiscal committee is tasked with finding deficit reductions in both cuts and revenues—teeing up another Congressional brawl over taxes later this year.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.


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.

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