On Infrastructure, Hopes for Progress This Year Look Glum

» President Obama barely mentions the need for improvements in the nation’s capital stock in his State of the Union.

The contributions of the Obama Administration to the investment in improved transportation alternatives have been significant, but it was clear from the President’s State of the Union address last night that 2012 will be a year of diminished expectations in the face of a general election and a tough Congressional opposition.

Mr. Obama’s address, whatever its merits from a populist perspective, nonetheless failed to propose dramatic reforms to encourage new spending on transportation projects, in contrast to previous years. While the Administration has in some ways radically reformed the way Washington goes about selecting capital improvements, bringing a new emphasis on livability and underdeveloped modes like high-speed rail, there was little indication in the speech of an effort to expand such policy choices. All that we heard was a rather meek suggestion to transform a part of the money made available from the pullout from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts — a sort of war dividend whose size is undefined — to “do some nation-building right here at home.”

If these suggestions fell flat for the pro-investment audience, they were reflective of the reality of working in the context of a deeply divided political system in which such once-universally supported policies as increased roads funding have become practically impossible to pursue. Mr. Obama pushed hard, we shouldn’t forget, for a huge, transformational transportation bill in early 2011, only to be rebuffed by intransigence in the GOP-led House of Representatives and only wavering support in the Democratic Senate. For the first term at least, the Administration’s transportation initiatives appear to have been pushed aside.

Even so, it remains to be seen how the Administration will approach the development of a transportation reauthorization program. Such legislation remains on the Congressional agenda after three years of delays (the law expires on March 31st). There is so far no long-term solution to the continued inability of fuel tax revenues to cover the growing national need for upgraded or expanded mobility infrastructure. But if it were to pass, a new multi-year transportation bill would be the most significant single piece of legislation passed by the Congress in 2012.

The prospect of agreement between the two parties on this issue, however, seems far-fetched. That is, if we are to assume that the goal is to complete a new and improved spending bill, rather than simply further extensions of the existing legislation. The House could consider this month a bill that would fund new highways and transit for several more years by expanding domestic production of heavily carbon-emitting fossil fuels, a terrible plan that would produce few new revenues and encourage more ecological destruction. Members of the Senate, meanwhile, have for months been claiming they were “looking” for the missing $12 or 13 billion to complete its new transportation package but have so far come up with bupkis. The near-term thus likely consists of either continued extensions of the current law or a bipartisan bargain that fails to do much more than replicate the existing law, perhaps with a few bureaucratic reforms.

In the context of the presidential race, Mr. Obama’s decision not to continue his previously strong advocacy of more and more transportation funding suggests that the campaign sees the issue as politically irrelevant. If the Administration made an effort last year to convince Americans of the importance of improving infrastructure, there seems to have been fewer positive results in terms of popular perceptions than hoped for. Perhaps the rebuffs from Republican governors on high-speed rail took their toll; perhaps the few recovery projects that entered construction were not visible enough (or at least their federal funding was not obvious enough); perhaps the truth of the matter is that people truly care more about issues like unemployment and health care than they do for public transit and roads.

This does not mean an end to the beneficial shifts in national policy that have for the first time in decades really made transportation a tool for the improvement of conditions in cities large and small. This, ultimately, is the success of the Department of Transportation under Mr. Obama: Making livability and density primary goals of the mobility system. Even if little gets done in 2012, it is hard to see these ideas disappearing from the popular discourse.

11 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • jim

    I think this indicates that the administration will not push for a surface transportation reauthorization this Congress. The House and Senate are too far apart. Simply extending (yes, yet again) the existing authorization is better than agreeing to the House version and likely better than any compromise that would come out of a conference.

    After the election it’ll be time to revisit the issue.

  • Jim,

    As much as I’d like to disagree, I think you are correct. The Tea Party GOP is determined not to show any more infrastructure success under President Obama at this time.

    Team Obama realized this fact, so they didn’t name Transportation funding in his SOTU comment “Split the savings from Defense drawdown to rebuild America and pay down the Debt.” Team Obama deliberately withheld that contentious point so the GOP could not pounce on it in post-SOTU media coverage this week.

    But Obama will have plenty of time to talk and negotiate Transportation funding in the 9 weeks preceding March 31st. Two factors MAY simultaneously occur to change GOP negotiation about Surface Transportation before that date.

    1. If Obama’s poll numbers rise, while Congress’ poll numbers remain static by late March, a small group of Congressional GOP, may break from the Tea Party’s iron fist for reasons of self-preservation. Yes the Tea Party will threaten to cut them from funding, but if some Congressional GOP don’t show serious attempts at job creation through at least Highway projects that their constituency can see, they’ll be hitting the bricks after November anyway.

    2. In the next 2-3 weeks American public’s appetite for GOP personal attacks will wane. Even though many voters are disappointed that more jobs have not been created on Obama’s watch, they have not seen Gingrich, Santorum or Romney detail realistic job creation plans. To become the GOP presidential nominee, one of them must differentiate from the pack and Transportation funding is a proven means to illustrate realistic job creation. So Congress may negotiate a Transportation bill that includes Highway, Transit and some HSR funding.

    In that scenario, Romney is most likely to endorse the new Transportation bill to differentiate himself from Gingrich and Santorum. Despite flip-flopping, Romney remembers that significant Highway, transit and HSR investment and job creation (Boston Big Dig, Boston Transit and more Amtrak NEC) made a positive difference to jobs under his watch. If Romney is the leading GOP candidate by then, it would give air cover for more Congressional GOP to split from the Tea Party on Transportation funding.

    Of course, Romney and Congressional GOPs in battleground states may continuing to pander to the Tea Party until the election. But if they do, President Obama wins this valuable leadership point leading up to the election because he’s been asking for more “job creating” Transportation funding since day one, while the Tea Party GOP has contemplated its navel.

  • Mike

    Certainly have to agree that it looks like nothing will happen this year. Have to disagree, though, with the claim that Obama ever pushed hard for any transportation program. Obama still has not produced a draft transportation authorization bill, and he has absolutely nothing to say about the most critical question of reauthorization: where will the money come from. His $50 billion HSR plan, and his more recent 6-year reathorization outline lack legislative language, a funding source, and a real commitment of political energy, and are clearly just political stagecraft. And fair enough, it’s been clear for years that nothing will happen until after the Presidential election.

  • I don’t think there’s much hope coming from the current Congress. Obama probably realizes it. Both the correct strategy and the strategy that the administration seems to be pursuing is to wait until 2013. Obama will probably win reelection, and if Gingrich manages to defeat Romney in the primary, then Obama will win by a considerably margin and probably get enough coattails to obtain a friendly Democratic Congress. In that situation, the Tea Party’s influence will drop to close to zero, and a transportation bill that includes nonzero money to local transit and to HSR becomes an option. At this stage even Romney looks vulnerable, but still less so than Gingrich.

    • Nathanael

      And to be blunt, the people who are disappointed with Obama are probably going to be voting Democratic for the House, at least, because they’re (we’re) even more horrified by the Republican House antics. Waiting for 2013 seems entirely sensible.

  • Better that Obama not mention HSR or transportation anyway. Anything he says will immediately become Enemy Number One for the GOPiers. If Obama proposed legislation to save puppies from burning buildings, you can bet the next morning that the Fox Propaganda Channel would be running a hit piece on puppies calling them anti-colonial canine Islamic secular terrorists.

  • Tim E

    Lets face it, Obama and the Dem’s blow an opportunity by not embracing Congressman Oberman’s (if i got the spelling right) long term transportation bill when they were able to get stimulus through Congress. Instead, they put it on the sideline and everything was DOA after the 2010 elections including Oberman’s re-election campaign.

    • Tim E,
      I’m not sure if the Surface Transportation bill came up for reconsideration before November 2010 or not. Perhaps someone in the blog can clarify. But I fervently agreed in January 2009 and still do, that President Obama should have pushed Transportation and Energy (Wind, Solar, Biomass, Natural Gas) job-creating infrastructure more than Health Care in his first two years.

      I surmise that Team Obama miscalculated how much political energy would be expended on Health Care (a long term issue), rather than using that energy to double Recovery Act funding. They probably though they’d get Health Care passed in 2009, then jump on the job creation.

      Nevertheless, the Tea Party GOP has painted themselves in such a corner against rebuilding infrastructure/job creation, they are enhancing reelection prospects for Obama and the Demos. How ironic that a platform Repubs and Demos have traditionally found common ground prior to November 2010, will be a platform to separate one over the other.

      • Matthew

        I’m pretty sure the original plan was to include Infrastructure and Energy spending in the 2009 stimulus, then expend the original political capital plus any gained from the stimulus and economic recovery to pass health care reform no matter the cost. And since the stimulus turned out to be underwhelming, consisting of many tax cuts and endless unemployment extensions that should have been infrastructure spending, just to appease the few conservative Democrats and one Republican it needed to pass and because some of the infrastructure spending that was included took years to allocate, no political capital was gained. What remained was barely enough to pass health care reform, again watered down to the point of ineffectiveness to appease the conservative Democrats and one Republican needed to pass it.

        I’m sure that the Democrats thought they’d have Health Care and Stimulus both passed in 2009, and could go forward with all the other issues that need reform, but underestimated republican obstructionism, first with the Al Franken recount/lawsuit hold-up, then with non-stop holds and filibuster threats, then the 60th senator dying and being replaced by a Republican, etc. Since Republicans were able to delay so long their PR machine was able to turn public opinion and Democrats lost big in 2010. I’m, in fact, convinced the Senate is inherently flawed, both in composition and power, and is 90% of what is wrong with modern American Politics.

        While I’m 100% behind massive infrastructure spending I think Health Care, in the original form Democrats proposed, was the more important issue. The affordability, even the ability to be approved for insurance, has suffered disproportionate inflation the past decade, made even more disproportionate considering the stagnant wages. It stood, in my opinion, on the verge of increasing beyond the affordability of even the upper middle class as companies increasingly drop or don’t offer coverage to employees. Hopefully, in spite of the shoddy health care bill that was passed, costs and availability can become controlled, I’m hopeful but not exactly optimistic, if you know what I mean.

        I suppose the real tragedy in all this is the stuff that we never even got to consider: reforming the tax code, fixing Social Security, alternative energy, etc. At least infrastructure and health care got some attention that put them on people’s radars.

        (As a disclaimer I should mention I am speaking as a poor, underemployed, late-20 something with a pre-existing condition, though due to the pre-existing condition I don’t drive so perhaps that somewhat balances my interests in the Infrastructure vs Health Care debate)

  • Matthew is exactly right, and for the first time, Obama realized it.

    The speech he gave was straight from the GOP. It’s a speech Romney could have written in 2008, or Mccain would have given had he won.

    It was very interesting to see Obama hit GOP talking points, and watch Boemer behind him frown and not clap.

    It’s an interesting strategy…by proposing a GOP agenda, Obama forces the GOP to oppose it, thus pushing them even further right, and making their platform a loser in any election.

    If Obama said “lets build x” the GOP would say “lets not”. And that gives them a voteable platform.

    But Obama said “lets cut taxes and lower spending” and the GOP finds itself in a place where they can’t exactly say no…because thats what their platform is. So theyre left running for new, more extreme positions. For crying out loud, the GOP managed to not applaud job creation.

    So perhaps the hope is that this strategy will force GOP out of the mainstream, and not just give Obama a win, but bring along the house and senate with him. That would allow him tp push through actual change.

    On the other hand, like Tim E mentioned…Obama had the chance before to get thing done. But remember how the white house told the senate to LOWER the amount of HSR funding they were agreeing on…? So even if this strategy works, doesnt mean we’re getting squat.

  • Billy Bob

    What about one of the last things Matthew said?

    That unemployment and health care is more important to the voters than transpo infra.?

    Frankly I see that to be a large factor. I may be a newbie but when it comes to transportation discussion, it’s always very LOCAL, not national. And compounded with the fact that most of the population lives in places with no decent rail service, it’s academic to me.

    Until enough people clamor for even attention to our badly underfunded road system (car culture US hasn’t paid enough attention to this), NOTHING WILL HAPPEN.

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