High Marks for HUD Secretary-Delegate

This morning, President-elect Barack Obama announced his appointment for the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It will be Shaun Donovan, who is currently the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Though Mr. Donovan has spent some time in private industry, the majority of his work has been in academia and in government, which we consider a good thing for the HUD post. His work as leader of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s affordable housing developer has been the efficient and steady construction and rehabilitation of thousands of apartments at better prices. In a conference last year, Mr. Donovan spoke about the potential of increasing housing development around the city’s transit hubs, focusing on the link between transportation and housing. In the Clinton Administration, he was deputy secretary of multi-family housing at HUD and was a competent manager. This is a quite a difference from the two most recent Bush appointees who were:

  • Steve Preston, who was an investment banker and then a chief financial officer before assuming the post, having never held any post related to housing whatsoever. (Assumed the post June 4, 2008.)
  • Alphonso Jackson, who did have a lot of experience in housing, but who, like many Bush appointees, seemed to only want to give funds to political friends, a problem when you’re the head of HUD, which mainly gives to Democratic-run cities. (Assumed the post March 31, 2004.)

Why should we at the transport politic care about the appointment of the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development? The truth is that the issues of housing and transportation are closely linked, and having a secretary who understands that better cities can be constructed when public transportation and housing are linked is a good thing. Having an appointee from New York City, who understands that fact completely, is especially good. Here’s a clip of what Mr. Obama said in his address:

We need to understand that the old ways of looking at our cities just won’t do. That means promoting cities as the backbone of regional growth by not only solving the problems in our cities, but seizing the opportunities in our growing suburbs, exurbs, and metropolitan areas.”

Mr. Obama’s statement and Mr. Donovan’s record provide us a good indication of where we’re going in terms of government’s approach to cities in the next few years. It’s good news for people like us, because Mr. Donovan is likely to push for denser, higher-quality housing near transit stations – whether in cities or in suburbia – and Mr. Obama will likely be on his side.

Extra: here’s an Observer interview with Mr. Donovan.

High-Speed Rail President

Reality Check: Clinton '92

There’s been a lot of speculation – including on this blog – about the potential for the Obama Administration to advance funding for transportation improvements such as public transportation and high-speed rail. That said, a few of Barack Obama’s recent comments about infrastructure funding put a focus on  “roads and bridges,” two investments that definitely need funding but which should not be our priorities. And yet we on this blog continue hoping, wishing, pleading, that Mr. Obama is simply avoiding transit issues because they’re too controversial. Let’s inject a little more skepticism into this equation, shall we?

The truth is that Bill Clinton, running back in 1992, argued far more forcefully for high-speed rail during the campaign than Mr. Obama ever has. And yet Mr. Clinton’s presidency produced few advances on that front. What can we expect from Mr. Obama?

Back in 1992, Mr. Clinton was running a campaign as a third-way “New Democrat” who was willing to accept free trade and deregulated capitalism. He envisioned a Democratic Party that was socially liberal, as it had been since the late ’60s, but economically conservative, as the Reagan era had made clear was popular with the people. As a result, he wasn’t too big of a proponent of “big government.” Rather, his most significant accomplishment, it could be argued, was the reform of welfare to welfare-to-work.

His rival Tom Harkin was a big proponent of a new New Deal that would restore the country’s then-fading infrastructure, with a focus on mass transit and green improvements. In the context of the recession that was then plaguing the country’s economy, Harkin – who called himself “The Builder” – argued that such a program could put millions of Americans to work.

Mr. Clinton was running to the right of the Democratic Party back in the primaries, and didn’t believe that a big economic building program like that which Harkin suggested was a good idea. But he still believed that government funding for some things was a good idea. In the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Clinton advanced his idea for a high-speed rail program, arguing that there were certain corridors in the country that demanded a better travel alternative. In April, in a speech to the Wharton School of Management in Philadelphia, Mr. Clinton promised the following:

A Clinton Administration will use a portion of transportation funding and possibly funds transferred from defense to create a high-speed rail network between our nation’s major cities. Bullet trains in five major corridors could serve 500,000 passengers a day at speeds up to 300 miles per hour.

His plan relied on maglev trains – then coming into fashion – rather than the more standard TGV/Shinkashen-type steel-on-rail type of high-speed trains. But the important point is that Mr. Clinton saw high-speed rail as a useful way to transform the country’s mobility systems – even if it meant sacrificing defense dollars, something no politician appears willing to say today.

By June, in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mr. Clinton had even come around on the issue of an economic stimulus plan to boost the economy:

My plan is a bold plan. It offers $50 billion in new investments over the next four years in each of the next four years. New incentives for the private sector, an investment tax credit, urban enterprise zones, new business tax incentives, research and development incentives and others.

It offers $20 billion a year in hard Federal dollars every year for the next four years, to build an economy for the 21st century, to invest in new roads and bridges, and streets and rail systems, to develop high-speed rail and a national fiber optic network, to develop new environmental technologies to clean our waters and our air, and to recycle more of our solid wastes. In short, to do those things which we are not doing today.

Before he was elected, Mr. Clinton had laid out a major economic plan, one of whose major elements was the high-speed rail system. Unlike Mr. Obama in his recent statement, Mr. Clinton was willing to put “rail systems” (presumably transit) and “high-speed rail” in the same sentence as “roads and bridges.” Mr. Clinton clearly didn’t find the issue to be so controversial that he wasn’t willing to talk about it. And Mr. Clinton was running on the right of the Democratic Party.

By the time of the Second Presidential Debate, Mr. Clinton laid out his plan to an entire national audience, something Mr. Obama has never done in reference to transit or high-speed rail initiatives:

My plan would dedicate $20 billion a year in each of the next four years for investment and new transportation, communications, environmental clean-up, and new technologies for the 21st century and we would target it especially in areas that have been either depressed or which have lost a lot of defense-related jobs. There are 200,000 people in California, for example, who’ve lost their defense-related jobs. They ought to be engaged in making high-speed rail; they ought to be engaged in breaking ground in other technologies, doing waste recycling, clean water technology, and things of that kind.

So went the Presidential Campaign of 1992. Bill Clinton – the winner, after all – successfully used high-speed rail investments, explained to the entire nation, as a way to convince people to vote for him. He saw trains as a winning issue, at least during the electoral season.

But once the election was over and Mr. Clinton was implementing his transition program, some who had been excited about the candidate’s plans during the campaign began worrying about the candidate’s actual priorities. As The New York Times put it on November 6th, 1992:

Equally tricky will be integrating environmental concerns into the plan for economic recovery, as Mr. Clinton has promised to do. Saying there is “good infrastructure and bad infrastructure,” environmentalists want to insure, for example, that public-works spending leans away from autos, trucks and highways and toward rail, mass transit and pedestrian systems. Early drafts of Mr. Clinton’s proposals have disappointed many of them.

But there was still hope, and in December, Mr. Clinton held an economic meeting with advisers in Little Rock to discuss how to stimulate the economy. He brought in the president of Amtrak, W. Graham Claytor, who argued “that the railroad was ready to start ‘instantly’ to spend more money, adding, ‘Long-term solutions don’t come about unless there’s short-term action.‘” As with today, at the time, there was palpable excitement about what the next president would be able to do to change the country. And in Mr. Clinton’s time, as in ours, high-speed rail was thought to be on the cusp of massive implementation.

And yet we all know what comes next. Mr. Clinton entered office and the 1993 High-Speed Rail Development Act, considered in the House, did not move. Though the Federal Railroad Administration has designated corridors for high-speed rail, little has come of the effort. Though Mr. Clinton’s campaign persona seemed like it would produce a very pro-rail president, the result was far less than that. Mr. Clinton did little to promote the issue. He never designated more than a few million dollars to any corridor. The Northeast Corridor’s improvement was half-hearted and resulted in not-so-fast “high-speed” rail.

The lesson we should take from the Clinton campaign is to take our own interpretations of Mr. Obama’s statements with a grain of salt. Though it’s nice to imagine the candidate is going to go all-out for high-speed rail, his positions so far have been less forthright than those of Mr. Clinton. Clearly, the President-elect is going to have to do a lot to convince us of his true positions – and that means prioritizing, in the budget.

We shall see in the next few months whether Mr. Obama truly cares about high-speed rail. But let’s not forget to keep up our own activism, rather than let our assumptions about his get in the way.

Infrastructure President

Great News from the President-Elect

Today’s presidential Youtube video demonstrates the kind of commitment we’ve been waiting for from the future Obama Administration:

“Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.”

Though we here at the transport politic are a little upset that Mr. Obama is not mentioning transit or high-speed rail programs directly, the message being given from other parts of the future Administration – notably from Joe Biden – implies that much of this money will in fact go to non-automobile-based transportation.

Keep in mind that the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the Eisenhower Interstate System, authorized $25 billion for roads over a 20-year period. That initial estimate ended up being wrong; the program’s eventual cost was  $114 billion ($425 in 2006 dollars). If we see an investment like that – and if we make sure it doesn’t just go to “roads and bridges” – we’ll be in good shape.

We remain optimistic here. As more information about Mr. Obama’s bill comes up, we’ll update you.

Infrastructure President

Morning Updates – More Administration News

The not-yet-in-power Obama Administration is showing that it has a strong interest in averting the increasing problems for the nation’s transportation funding. Today on the blog (the official website of the Administration-in-waiting), there was a further emphasis on the President-elect’s committment to taking advantage of the economic crisis to sponsor vast increases in infrastructure funding. The blog specifically quotes three individuals who have ideas for how to use the economic stimulus money, and all three point to infrastructure spending as being a necessary and major component. Most importantly, the blog post includes the comments of a man from Staten Island who mentions the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan to increase fares by 23% even as it decreases services on New York City’s buses and trains.

Though this is simply a blog post, the fact that the administration was willing to include this specific mention of one city’s economic problems points to the fact that there is an interest in propping up transit agencies that are facing extreme financial problems because of dramatically decreasing tax revenues. This is a good pointer from the next administration and indicates it will be prioritizing transit.

This comes on the same day that the Washington Post reports that the Obama stimulus plan may reach up to $700 billion – far higher than we expected, and again, good news for those of us who think it’s time to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.

Bay Area President United Kingdom

Obama Stimulus; HSR in UK Advances; BART Expansion Passes; LA Orange Line to Become LRT?

Biggest news of the weekend is Barack Obama’s new economic stimulus plan, which proposes creating 2.5 million jobs in infrastructure and alternative energy solutions. Though the specifics have not yet been worked out, the plan would, in the current plan, be passed almost as soon as he entered office – he would hand it over to Congress before he moved into the White House. Look for the bill to be in the $300 billion range, and look for it to provide specific funds for mass transit – and perhaps high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, the plans for high-speed rail links in the United Kingdom continue to advance. A new line would run from London, through Glasgow, to Edinburgh, decreasing total travel time from 4h30 today to 2h15. The total cost of the project would run up to 31 billion pounds, a not-insignificant sum, especially considering that Conservative leaders are plotting another plan for a high-speed rail line from London to Manchester and Birmingham.

In California’s Santa Clara County, the BART extension plan has passed, now with 66.78% approval rating, “well” above the 66.67% needed to pass. This extension, though it would be paid for by a 1/2 cent sales tax in the county, would require additional federal funding for it actually to be built.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there is an increasing push to convert the very-popular Orange Line busway to light rail operations. This would save about 15 minutes of travel time, but one wonders whether the city would continue to invest when there are so many other corridors in the County that also need significant improvements in transit service.