Congress Elections Infrastructure President

The Vote 2012

» A change in power in Washington will affect federal commitment to sustainable transportation, but so will local ballot measures.

The first two years of the Obama Administration, accompanied by Democratic Party control of the U.S. House and Senate, produced significant new investments in transportation projects nationwide. Over $10 billion was distributed to intercity rail projects across the country, new funds were devoted to streetcar and bus rapid transit lines, and the government began an unprecedented period of cooperation between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Since early 2011, however, much of this progress has been stalled thanks to a stingy U.S. House newly controlled by the Republican Party. Their leadership, both in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Budget Committee, has promoted a significant decrease in funding for alternative transportation. A House committee voted in favor of legislation that would eliminate the guaranteed distribution of gas tax revenues for transit; the full body repeatedly voted against high-speed rail investment; and previous requirements for states and localities to invest in pedestrian-oriented projects have been scoffed at.

Mitt Romney’s decision to select Paul Ryan, head of the House Budget Committee, suggests that, if he were elected, he would pursue a similar significant reduction in spending on transportation. Barack Obama has campaigned, on the other hand, in favor of transferring funds currently being spent on the war in Afghanistan on “nation building at home,” or improved infrastructure in the U.S.

But President Obama’s advocacy of a large transportation bill in 2011 and 2012 was ignored by Congress. Only in the summer of 2012 were Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate able to compromise on a two-year transportation bill that maintained previous levels of investment, largely on the back of deficit spending. There is little evidence that there is any source of new funding for transportation projects that will acquire bipartisan support.

Polls indicate that President Obama is likely to win reelection, Democrats will keep the Senate, and Republicans will keep the House. These conditions will probably prevent the federal government from increasing investment in alternative transportation over the next two years. We’ll likely be at a stalemate.

Fortunately, measures also on the ballot in many cities will play a big role in determining the future of America’s transportation investments. Below is a summary of the major measures up for vote. It is not an exhaustive list, only including transit spending in major metropolitan areas; it does not include proposals to expand investment in highway infrastructure, such as Arkansas’ Issue 1, which would distribute about $1.3 billion to new four-lane roadways across the state. For a full list, see the Center for Transportation Excellence.

Follow me @ttpolitic for live coverage. On another topic, you may also be interested in the op-ed on the home mortgage deduction I co-authored with Professor Lawrence Vale in last Wednesday’s New York Times.

Round-up of local ballot measures (and one mayoral election) that will affect transit projects nationwide. Updated with results 9 AM Wednesday

1. Alameda County (California) Measure B1 : Failed with 65.5% voting in favor (needs 2/3)

This county, across the Bay from San Francisco and incorporating the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, among others, is proposing a 30-year extension of its existing transportation sales tax. The $7.7 billion expected to be collected over the period will be distributed to transportation improvement projects, with about half going to public transportation and 39% to roads. 24% of overall funding will be distributed to transit operations and maintenance and a significant amount diverted to transit capital projects, such as the long-sought-after Dumbarton Rail project, BRT corridors, and infill stations along BART.

About $400 million in tax revenues will be distributed to the BART to Livermore expansion project, which is likely to increase sprawl in the eastern sections of the Bay Area as it improves transit access to the Livermore Lab, for better or worse.

2. Arlington County (Virginia) Bond : Passed

This (increasingly urban) suburb of Washington, D.C. is asking voters to approve a $32 million bond to be spent on transit, roads, bike, and pedestrian projects. About half will be spent on fleet and capital improvements for the region’s Metrorail network. Over the past five decades, the County has been a very responsible custodian of its transportation network and invested in projects that have encouraged transportation alternatives.

3. Clark County (Washington) Sales Tax : Failed

Vancouver, Washington is just adjacent to Portland, Oregon and is expected to welcome an expansion of the latter city’s light rail network in the next few decades thanks to a new crossing over the Columbia River. A 0.1% increase in the existing sales tax will provide funding for light rail and bus rapid transit operations in the Fourth Plain Corridor, which extends from Vancouver’s downtown.

4. Honolulu (Hawaii) Mayor’s Race : Caldwell (pro-rail) Wins

More than any other city in the country, Honolulu’s transit future depends on this mayoral election. The city has a more than $5 billion elevated metro rail line under construction that is expected to carry more than 100,000 riders a day thanks to a corridor that serves most of the city’s major destinations. The project has been under development for a decade, has assurances of federal funding, and has the support of locals thanks to previous approvals of a dedicated tax to pay for the line. Candidate Kirk Caldwell, who has previously served as acting mayor, is supporting the project.

But opponent Ben Cayetano argues the rail line is a waste of money and that funds could be better spent on bus rapid transit corridors that would be less visually intrusive than the rail line. He claims (without much evidence) that the city could reorient federal funding into such a project and serve as many people. He has promised to shut down the line’s construction if he is elected.

5. Houston (Texas) Sales Tax Diversion : Passed (Diversion continues)

Since 2003, a quarter of Houston’s 1% transit sales tax is redistributed to local communities under the General Mobility Program. This effectively allows cities to build roads ith  money that was originally supposed to be directed to bus operations and light rail expansion. The diversion of funds was initially supposed to end in 2014, but voters are being asked whether they want to extend the diversion until 2025.

While transit advocates argue the policy is depriving the city’s public transportation network of desperately needed funds, local mayors argue they need the money to continue their normal operations.

6. Kansas City (Missouri) Streetcar

Kansas City is planning a $100 million streetcar line that will connect destinations downtown. Unlike many other cities, locals here are planning to pay for the project mostly out of local funds. Specifically, about 700 downtown residents are being asked whether they are willing to pay special assessments and a 1¢ sales tax for the privilege of funding the streetcar.

The mail-in ballot is not due back until December 11, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer to hear back about these results.

7. Los Angeles (California) Streetcar

Like Kansas City, L.A. also expects local residents to consider paying a dedicated tax to construct a streetcar line. The mail-in ballot will fund a project that connects with the region’s subway and light rail networks and serves the biggest destinations in downtown L.A. There is some question as to whether the project is duplicative of existing services.

Citing Portland’s experience, many proponents of investments in streetcar lines argue that the systems can play an important role in encouraging economic development and improving property values. The local taxes proposed in L.A. and Kansas City are a test of whether property owners in those cities are willing to bet on that concept.

8. Los Angeles (California) Measure J : Failed with 64.7% voting in favor (needs 2/3)

Fresh off the passage of Measure R in 2008, L.A.’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is proposing extending that half-cent sales tax from 2039 (when it was supposed to expire) to 2069. This extension will allow L.A. County to use projected revenues far into the future to pay for transit and highway investment projects today. If passed, the measure will make it possible to complete many of the region’s major mass transit projects, including a subway to UCLA, an airport link, and a downtown connector, far more quickly than originally planned.

9. Memphis (Tennessee) Gas Tax : Failed

This city’s leadership is promoting a unique approach to improving funding for the area’s public transportation system, MATA. By implementing a local tax on gasoline equivalent to 1¢ per gallon sold, the city will be able to raise between $3 to $6 million for transit. Specifically, funds will go to expanding service on 8 bus routes and the downtown trolley.

10. Orange County (North Carolina) Sales Tax : Passed

Last year, voters of Durham County, Orange County’s neighbor to the east, approved a half-cent sales tax, dedicated to funding transit. The two counties, part of the broader Research Triangle region, plan to significantly improve bus services and construct new light and commuter rail lines. If Orange County’s residents approve the tax, about $661 million will be collected over the next thirty years, about $418 million of which will be devoted to a light rail line connecting the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill and downtown Durham.

11. Richland County (South Carolina) Sales Tax

This county, whose seat is Columbia, the state’s capital, is asking its voters to consider the imposition of a one-cent sales tax that will fund roads, greenways, and bike lanes. The tax is expected to raise about $1.1 billion over 22 years, of which $301 million, or about one quarter, will be spent on improving bus service on the region’s Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority. About $656 million will be spent on local roads.

12. Virginia Beach (Virginia) Light Rail Advisory Vote : Passed

Fresh off the success of the new light rail line in neighboring Norfolk, Virginia Beach is considering whether to extend that line into the city and perhaps all the way to the waterfront. Citizens are being asked whether they approve of the idea or not, but the city council, advised by this citizen input, will make the final decision on whether to pursue the project or not.

Image at top: Rendering of proposed Kansas City Streetcar, from KC Smart Moves

Elections President

As the U.S. Presidential Election Begins in Earnest, a Study in Contrasts

» With Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as presumptive Republican nominee for Vice President, the GOP is taking a clear stand on where it wants to take government. The effects on national transportation policy could be tremendous.

As chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan has assumed a prominent role in the national dialogue since the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of 2011. His position there has allowed him to define the party’s position on the federal budget, the social welfare state, and, yes, even transportation. We can only assume that Mitt Romney’s decision to share the platform with Mr. Ryan implies an endorsement of the latter’s views — especially in terms of policies where Mr. Romney has not been specific.

What is obvious is that Mr. Ryan has a dramatically different view of the role of government than President Obama; indeed, his perspective on that which Washington should be concerned is a deep expression of the conservative movement’s success in pushing the GOP to the right.

In matters of transportation, this attitude would steadily decrease the role of the federal government in sponsoring infrastructure projects, especially those that cannot be sponsored entirely through user fees. It would discourage the consideration of negative externalities, such as pollution and congestion, in deciding what subsidies should be provided for alternative transportation — because its political ideology opposes government subsidies altogether. It would dismantle enforcement of federal environmental regulations, especially those that recognise climate change, and encourage the privatization of public services such as transit systems or parking meters. These are the very tangible implications of a Romney-Ryan presidency.

Mr. Romney’s platform provides no indication of his views on transportation or other urban issues. Though as governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007 he was a moderate on these issues, Mr. Romney has has made no attempt to discuss them at length during the campaign other than saying that Amtrak should be privatised.* Mr. Ryan’s past actions, therefore, speak loudly.

We can best examine Mr. Ryan’s views by reviewing his voting record and analysing the budgets he proposed in his leadership position in the House.

On transportation, Mr. Ryan voted against every piece of transportation legislation proposed by Democrats when they controlled the lower chamber between 2007 and early 2010, with the exception of a bill subsidizing the automobile industry to the tune of $14 billion in loans in December 2008. This record included a vote against moving $8 billion into the highway trust fund in July 2008 (the overall vote was 387 to 37), a bill that was necessary to keep transportation funding at existing levels of investment. Meanwhile, he voted for a failed amendment that would have significantly cut back funding for Amtrak and voted against a widely popular bill that would expand grants for public transportation projects. He did vote in favor of the most recent transportation bill extension.

Mr. Ryan’s views on the future of government in general are evident in the budgets that he has prepared as head of the Budget Committee for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, neither of which have been implemented as they conflict with proposals from President Obama and the Democratic Senate. These budgets, which are founded on the principle that the U.S. government must shrink considerably, would alter the American safety net massively through a dismantlement of Medicaid by handing it out as block grants to states and a privatization of Medicare. An analysis of the budget by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 62% of budget cuts would come from programs that benefit low-income Americans. All this while providing the wealthy a huge tax break.

The biggest cuts of all, however, would go to “discretionary” elements of the budget, including defense and programs like transportation, which Mr. Ryan wants to keep to 3.75% of the GDP, down from about 12.5% today.** The consequences would be dramatic. This is how Mr. Ryan’s fiscal year 2012 budget describes the Republicans’ goals for transportation:

“This budget anticipates that Congress can keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent without additional general fund transfers or increases in the gasoline tax by consolidating dozens of separate highway programs that GAO has identified as duplicative. This will help focus every dollar on pursuing a targeted and cohesive national transportation policy.”

Translation: All Department of Transportation programs that are not user-fee funded (like TIGER, high-speed rail, and perhaps even transit capital funding) would be eliminated. And ground transportation spending would be limited to revenues from fuel taxes, which he would not increase. Overall, DOT outlays would decline from $95 billion overall in 2011 to a low of $66 billion in 2016, rising to only $72 billion by 2020. As House Republicans showed with H.R. 7, their proposed transportation bill that would have eliminated the mass transit account of the highway trust fund and eliminated aid for bike and pedestrian projects, they are willing to sacrifice non-automobile transportation programs in favor of establishing a “targeted and cohesive” policy, which in this case appears to mean roads-only.

In contrast, President Obama’s proposed budget would expand transportation expenditures massively over the next six years, with a particular focus on intercity rail and public transportation. Under his budget, federal expenditures going to transit and rail would increase from 22.9% of transportation funding in 2013 to 35.7% in 2018; under Mr. Ryan’s program, they could decline to almost nothing, since transit cannot pay for itself using user fees, like it or not.

Reihan Salam argues that Mr. Ryan is simply charting the general path that the GOP wants to take — “toward smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom” — and that “there would of course be negotiation over the size of spending cuts and over revenue.” But in a time when the state of the nation’s built infrastructure is miserable, a negotiation over cuts is entirely the wrong discussion to be having, especially when state governments have not shown themselves willing to increase transportation spending; the argument we should be having is how much federal spending on transportation should expand.

Mr. Salam is convinced that Mr. Ryan “has always been careful to note that his support for entitlement reform flows from a deep commitment to preserving America’s social safety net,” but massive cuts to public transportation will not aid the poor and urban dwellers even if the hopeful vice president has a “deep commitment.” His budget would be a death blow to many millions of Americans who rely on transit to get around everyday because they have no other options — not to mention the many millions more who do, but choose to take transit and in such aid the nation in cutting congestion and pollution.

This campaign will be played out on issues that are far more important than federal transportation subsidies, of course. But we should be clear about what direction the United States may head after November’s election.

The Democrats have a choice: Accept Mr. Ryan’s commitment to undermining the role of government by agreeing that “things need to be reformed,” just with more moderation than Republicans would allow; or projecting a strongly held view of the importance of the role of government in American society. The fact is that significantly improved transit systems in the nation’s cities will require increasing federal investment, and that simply will not happen if Mr. Ryan gets his way.

Postscript: I’d simply like to quote Christian Wolmar’s nice commentary on the very successful London Olympics, as it feels relevant to this column:

“It is, though, worth stressing that these were the public sector games. They were bid for by the public sector, won by the public sector, organised by the public sector, paid for by the public sector – oh you get the picture. But there is more: the security ended up being rescued by the public sector and relied on public transport – organised and paid for by the public sector, even if at times provided by private companies… The whole event was a celebration of the way that people get together, form governments which then run things for the people, and shows that government is not something that necessarily we want less of, the favourite mantra of Romney and Ryan.”

* In part because the cities are largely the domain of the Democratic Party (other than in local races, the GOP does not make much of an effort to promote legislation that woud aid urban areas) and thus are rarely contested in national elections. Ironically, Mr. Romney’s father, George Romney (who was Governor of Michigan and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President in 1968) was a persistant advocate for aid to the cities and was appointed by President Nixon to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he fought unsuccessfully for increasing housing aid for low- and moderate-income families before resigning in early 1973.

** Romney’s proposed budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would shrink non-defense discretionary funding from 3.9% of GDP on average to between 1.1 and 1.6%, a massive reduction.

DOT Finance Infrastructure President

The President’s Budget: Full of Ambition, Short on Congressional Support

» The executive branch’s proposed spending for FY 2013 would greatly expand spending on transit and intercity rail, but it faces a hostile Congress. It brings good news, however, for five California rail projects and new light rail lines for Charlotte, Honolulu, and Portland.

The White House has introduced a budget — and a reauthorization proposal — that would significantly increase investment in transportation infrastructure over the next six years. Though the legislation as currently designed will not be passed into law because of reluctance from Congress, the Obama Administration’s continued efforts to expand funding for sustainable mobility options are to be praised.

Over the course of the next six years, the Administration proposes significant expansions in transit and rail spending, increasing those programs from 22.9% of the overall DOT budget for surface transportation in fiscal year 2013 (and 21% in actual spending in FY 2011) to 35.7% of the budget in FY 2018. See table below. Though expenditures on highways would increase significantly as well, it would be in public transportation modes that the real expansion would be made. Significant spending on intercity rail — almost $50 billion over six years — as well as new transit capital projects ($21 billion) and state of good repair (SOGR, at $32 billion) would be the most important contributions of the program.

The Administration’s Proposed Six-Year Transportation Reauthorization
Unless noted, amounts in $b201320142015201620172018Total
FHA (including $500 m for TIFIA)42.5746.4649.6653.5455.5158.52305.25
Transit Formula (FTA)4.766.537.118.058.969.9145.31
Bus Rail SOGR (FTA)
Transit Expansion (FTA)2.453.013.253.794.174.4121.07
FTA & FRA as % of Total22.931.532.534.034.935.732.5

In addition to revenues from the fuel tax (which no one seems willing to advocate increasing), the White House proposes to pay for its transportation bill by reducing the size of the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is used to support armed operations abroad. Because of the decision to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the amount of money needed for this purpose is lessened, and thus the possibility of expanding spending on transportation.

Most of the President’s proposal is unlikely to see the light of day in the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans newly hostile to the idea of using Highway Trust Fund revenues to pay for transit projects. Yet their proposal would create a $78 billion funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund over the next ten years according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. That’s with $0 committed to transit! The Administration proposal, on the other hand, is fully funded (or at least accounted for*) and would transform the Highway Trust Fund into the much more reasonably titled Transportation Trust Fund; the priorities of each piece of legislation are very clear.

The defection of several House Republicans away from their own party’s transportation bill suggests that the legislation may not even get out of their chamber. At this point, the Senate’s bipartisan, mostly status-quo-extending two-year transportation reauthorization bill is now the most likely of all three proposals to be official government policy by the end of the spring. But even it faces the strong possibility of being ditched in favor of a simple extension of the existing bill, which will expire on March 31 according to the current law.

Nonetheless, the Obama Administration’s plans for this expansion in transit funding, which mirror similar proposals from previous years, are a reminder of  the ambitions for improved transportation that are possible in this country but continue to be derailed by political forces hostile to the idea of investing in the nation’s infrastructure. This is a serious proposal to significantly improve the state of the nation’s rail and bus systems — if we choose to take it.

More definite than any of the recommendations for an expansion in funding are the Obama Administration’s recommendations for new capital investment projects. The Federal Transit Administration contributes a significant portion of costs for new rail and bus lines in the United States through the New Starts and Small Starts programs, though the Department of Transportation is recommending that these simply be merged into a new Transit Expansion and Livable Communities Program, which would also include grants for projects currently funded by the TIGER program.

The major news is that the FTA will recommend pledging its support with Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) soon to four new major rail projects — the Charlotte Northeast Corridor light rail, the Los Angeles Regional Connector light rail subway, the Los Angeles Westside Subway, and the Columbia River Crossing Project light rail line in Portland — in addition to five other rail projects that will receive that funding guarantee a bit soon — a South Sacramento light rail line, San Francisco’s Central Subway, Honolulu’s Rail project, San Jose’s BART extension, and the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line. See the chart below. The latter projects are all under construction; the former group will get underway either by the end of the year or in 2013.

In addition, the FTA will fund nine BRT lines with the Project Construction Grant Agreements (PCGA) across the country. Of course the twelve major projects that already have FFGAs will continue to be funded, including New York’s two megaprojects, the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access for the Long Island Railroad.

The DOT’s Proposed Funding for Transit Capital Projects (35 projects)
CityProject ModeRatingCost m$% Fed ShareLength MiRiders kCost / Rider k$
New YorkLIRR East Side AccessCRFFGA738635.63.516744
New York2nd Ave Phase 1MFFGA486726.72.321323
DallasGreen/Orange LinesLRTFFGA140649.821.045.931
DenverEagle East CorridorCRFFGA204350.430.257.535
Salt LakeDraperLRTFFGA19359.83.86.828
WashingtonDulles Metro Phase 1MFFGA314228.611.785.737
SeattleUniversity LinkLRTFFGA194841.73.140.248
HartfordHartford-New BritainBRTFFGA56748.59.416.335
OrlandoSunrail Phase 1CRFFGA35750.132.07.448
MinneapolisCentral CorridorLRTFFGA95749.59.840.923
HoustonNorth CorridorLRTFFGA75659.55.329.925
HoustonSoutheast CorridorLRTFFGA82354.76.628.829
SacramentoSouth Phase 2LRTPending27050.04.31027
San FranciscoCentral SubwayLRTPending157859.71.735.145
HonoluluRail TransitMPending512630.220.111644
San JoseSilicon Valley BART Phase 1MPending233038.610.24651
Los AngelesRegional ConnectorLRTRecommended134350.01.988.215
Los AngelesWestside SubwayMRecommended566242.48.978.772
CharlotteNortheast CorridorLRTRecommended106950.09.324.643
PortlandColumbia River CrossingLRTRecommended94090.42.92243
JacksonvilleSoutheast Corridor (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA2479.211.14.75
PhoenixCentral Mesa (2016)LRTRecommended PCGA19837.93.19.720
FresnoBlackstone/Kings Canyon (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA4881.313.87.27
OaklandEast Bay (2016)BRTRecommended PCGA20536.614.441.75
San FranciscoVan Ness (2016)BRTRecommended PCGA12659.52.052.42
JacksonvilleNorth Corridor (2013)BRTRecommended PCGA3381.89.34.67
Grand RapidsSilver Line (2014)BRTRecommended PCGA3580.09.67.25
El PasoDyer Corridor (2015)BRTRecommended PCGA3557.1123.410
EugeneWest Eugene EMX (2017)BRTRecommended PCGA9678.18.97.413
San DiegoMid Coast CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium High164249.411
BaltimoreRed LineLRTPlanning - Medium High221950.014.55739
WashingtonPurple LineLRTPlanning - Medium High192650.016.360.132
MinneapolisSouthwest CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium122150.0
HoustonUniversity CorridorLRTPlanning - Medium139350.011.3

FFGA – Full Funding Grant Agreement (formerly New Start) already approved by FTA, meaning that the federal government has guaranteed payment on its share of capital costs, and project is moving forward.

Pending – The FTA is planning to advance with a FFGA this year.

Recommended – The FTA intends to work with the transit agency to prepare for a FFGA either this year (Charlotte) or next (Los Angeles and Portland).

Recommended PCGA – The FTA is planning to advance with a Project Construction Grant Agreement (formerly Small Start) with a transit agency either this year or next.

Planning – Still under review; FFGA likely in several years. Rating indicates DOT’s empirical sense of the project’s value.

* “Fully funded,” of course, is a nebulous term: Does money saved from pulling out of overseas military conflicts “count” as money to be spent somewhere else? The Administration says yes, while Republicans in Congress say no, arguing that that money is deficitary anyway.

Image above: Planned Westwood/UCLA Station, from Metro

Infrastructure President

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.

Congress Finance President

With Diminished Expectations, President Obama Renews Attempt to Expand Transportation Financing

» Major components of the President’s American Jobs Act include direct grants for improved transportation and an infrastructure bank.

A year and two months away from the United States’ next big election, politics in Washington are at a virtual standstill, with Democrats and Republicans completely at odds with one another when it comes to government policies. The situation has aggravated an already difficult funding situation for the nation’s transportation, which lacks an adequate funding source and faces a murky future. Meanwhile, the unemployment situation worsens.

President Obama’s speech tonight, in which he introduced a proposed American Jobs Act, was designed to stake a strong ground in opposition to the anti-investment GOP. In addition to a number of other policies, it promoted transportation investment as a great opportunity for reducing the rate of joblessness and improving the sometimes miserable condition of the country’s highways, rail, and transit. While the speech is unlikely to result in much Congressional action — Republicans do not seem inclined to support any of the President’s initiatives — it came across as thoughtful and in line with the nation’s great economic needs of the moment.

For transportation, the bill would direct $50 billion to the construction of highways, transit, rail, and aviation. Another measure would deposit $10 billion into an infrastructure bank. Both funds would identify and sponsor the projects most likely to spur job growth as quickly as possible. Though the proposal was not laid out in further detail tonight, it represented another variation of the ramp-up in investments in transportation the Obama Administration has been attempting to promote for several years now.

Even so, the project was a clear step back from the far more ambitious proposals Mr. Obama made at the beginning of the year, when he suggested directing $70.4 billion to highways, $18.5 billion to transit grants, and $8.0 billion to high-speed rail in 2012 alone.

In response to the President’s new plans, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) criticized him for being unwilling to describe how the investments would be paid for, evidently unwilling to accept the Keynesian evidence that in difficult economic periods it is a good idea for governments to use deficit funding to support the economy. Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee John Mica (R-FL) immediately articulated a position against the plans for the infrastructure bank, arguing that states should take on the responsibility.

Just yesterday, the Republican leaders of the House Appropriations Committee unveiled their proposals for massive reductions in spending at the U.S. Department of Transportation, reducing highway expenditures to $27.7 billion in 2012 (from $41.8 billion in 2011) and transit formula spending to $5.2 billion (from $8.3 billion). No new New Start or Small Start transit capital grants would be funded. The high-speed rail program, which had once been one of Mr. Obama’s signature policies, would be entirely cut. These are austerity measures completely out of step with an economy desperately in need of stimulus, job creation, and infrastructure improvements.

Alternatives to Mr. Obama’s plan that would continue to limit transportation funding from the federal government have little credibility — at least if we believe that keeping the nation’s mobility networks in a condition of acceptable repair is an important national goal. States have limited ability to increase their indebtedness, and the cutbacks that have followed the recession have demonstrated that governors and state legislatures have been almost universally unwilling (or unable) to invest their own funds to shore up their roads and transit lines — in spite of a decline in support from D.C.

At this point, with a Congress that has now dithered on the matter of transportation funding for 709 days, the President’s proposal is about as good as it gets. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has any chance of making it into law.