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Barack Obama

On Election Eve, Reading the Transpo Tea Leaves

6:30 PM EST on November 3, 2008

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Though we found plenty of fodder this election season, transportation policy never emerged as a consistent talking point in the presidential race. This is more than a little surprising, considering the sad state of American infrastructure and the importance of same to this country's economic and strategic well-being. Then again, what kind of dialogue can we expect when one side's position can essentially be summed up in three words, two of which are "drill."

On this election eve, we turn to an unexpected source for a sober summation of the future of transport under either a McCain or Obama administration: the Pacific Shipper, "the Essential Transpacific News Weekly." In an insider-y feature story posted today, the Shipper susses out some of the main policy differences between the two candidates, from highways to waterways, and finds electeds and experts who think each is in for a rude awakening when it comes to funding.

Perhaps more than any national campaign in recent history, the majorcandidates have staked out very clear and decidedly different stanceson transportation infrastructure investment.

McCain has made criticism of earmarks something of a crusade in hiscampaign, and says he wants to send more decisions on spendingpriorities to the states.

“I believe that a higher share of the taxes collected at the gaspump should go back to the state where those taxes were paid,” theArizona Republican told the American Automobile Association, “and I’ve co-sponsored legislation thatwould allow states to keep almost all of their gas tax revenues fortheir own transportation projects without interference fromWashington.”

“We’ve got a problem,” Mortimer Downey, a former deputy secretary oftransportation in the Clinton administration and an adviser to theObama campaign, told a public forum in Washington last week ontransportation policy. “Infrastructure needs more investment. It isimportant, it is crumbling, and other countries are doing more than weare. We’ve got national issues we need to deal with, and transportationis the critical tool for doing that.”

He said the Obama camp has “a vision” for the next highway bill. “Itshould be a much better bill than the last couple. It shouldn’t have somany earmarks in it,” Downey said.

At the same forum, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economic adviser tothe McCain campaign, said the spending priorities are critical. “Thereis no area where earmarking has been more visible than in highwaybills. We have to get more bang for the buck.”

Downey said the economy will make transportation programs moreimportant. Obama favors, he said, “an economic recovery measure thatwould have infrastructure and get people working on, hopefully, smallprojects that would roll out quickly.”

After the jump, the Shipper looks at how the next admin might try to finance the 2009 federal funding package, and what the US Department of Transportation could look like under each.

How either administration would pay for a highway bill remains an open question.

Obama has endorsed a $60 billion National Infrastructure Bank to invest in projects of a national priority.

McCain dismisses that idea. “The notion that there is a need for aninfrastructure bank is not something the senator supports,” Holtz-Eakinsaid. He called the plan “reminiscent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

At the agency level, industry observers believe the two would offer starkly different approaches to regulation.

Industry officials believe an Obama White House would work closelywith the Democratic Congress on such agency-level issues, and a strongmajority in the Senate would clear the way for broader actions in areassuch as “card check” legislation to make it easier for labor unions toorganize workers.

A McCain Department of Transportation, meanwhile, likely would look much like the last eight years under President Bush.

“I think a McCain DOT is going to be very similar to what we havenow,” said the U.S. Chamber’s Kavinoky. “There has been speculationabout Mary Peters staying on as DOT secretary. In that case, I thinkyou would see a lot of consistency between a Bush and a McCainadministration.”

“An Obama administration is starting over; they have to put all newpeople in place, develop reauthorization proposals, that could delaythe process,” she said. “It’s not an easy task to develop legislativeconcepts that could get through (the Office of Management and Budget).”

And who would head up the next USDOT? The Shipper mentions Downey and Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey as possibilities. Mary Peters tops the list of prospects under McCain, according to Congressional Quarterly, which also names Garvey as a potential Obama pick. A Politico piece picked up by Bike Portland says Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Jim Oberstar have been short-listed by Obama. And though we'd hate to lose her, New Yorkers have our local favorite.

Regardless of how little time the campaigns have devoted to the issue while on the trail, it will undoubtedly loom large for the next occupant of the White House, one way or another.

Graphic: Pacific Shipper

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