Obama’s Stimulus: Too Much Emphasis on Roads and Bridges?

There’s a lot of reaction from members of the the Streetsblog Network to President-elect Obama’s address this weekend. Some transit advocates, like The Transport Politic, are putting a positive spin on it, and Ryan Avent at The Bellows says, "it’s really amazing to see the wave of public intellectual criticism [for] Obama’s potential stimulus plan." Avent adds, in another post:

I have yet to see is any evidence that Obama intends to embark on a
major program of new road construction. And until we see definitive
evidence of something like that, transit supporters really ought to
calm down.

But others — like Cap’n Transit — are hearing the refrain "roads and bridges" way too many times. Trains for America puts it this way:

We here at TFA, along with practically every other blog about non-auto
transportation, have been holding our breaths waiting for anything at
all substantive about how the Obama administration is going to take
advantage of this unique time to refocus attention on our overcrowded
and underfunded transit systems.

What do you think?

Also on Streetsblog.net today, a post from The Overhead Wire about the lack of transit power brokers with the political will of Robert Moses.

  • thisisnotmyname

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with road and bridge repair and construction so long as it is paired with improvements in mass transit. So if a municipality wants its road repairs to be funded, for instance, it has to also allow funding for expanding or improving mass transit in their area. Specifically, fresh roads and bridges can be good for encouraging bus service, which is currently a much cheaper means of mass transit for intercity trips than is Amtrak.

  • Aaron

    I think it would be shame if this enormous stimulus package gets pushed through and there’s little for rail or public transit. However, goal of the program is to get money into the system with jobs that could start tomorrow. While new rail and public transportation projects might be on the table, there’s a lot of legal wrangling that has to happen first, compared to repairing bridges or retrofitting existing public buildings with more energy efficient tech – no permission necessary. Just sign it into law. It’s a stimulus bill, not a transit bill. That’ll come later next year.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I heard a lot about public buildings. If the housing secretary comes from NY, and the transportation secretary from elsewhere, the usual deal, I wouldn’t expect much transportation stimulus for NY. But NYCHA might get the large scale gut rehabs it needs.

  • rex

    Transit may get a bump in an “equal but separate” sort of way, but there is no national political figure, party or movement that will come out in a strong way against private cars and the associated infrastructure. Neo-liberals, progressives, neo-conservatives, conservatives, and libertarians, will not advocate against them. Even the majority of the green party thinks that hybrid and electric cars are going to save the planet.

    We are going to print-up $35 billion to bail out the auto industry. That is enough to give every tax payer a $300 bicycle. After doing that, do you really think that Washington is going to turn around and ask consumers to not buy cars and get on our bikes or take the bus? We used to be citizens and now we are consumers, things have been going down hill ever since.

  • oscar

    good point rex
    one of the worst parts about the auto bailout is that it will now be in the taxpayer’s best interest (financially) for the big3 to do well, meaning more cars

  • Larry Littlefield

    “One of the worst parts about the auto bailout is that it will now be in the taxpayer’s best interest (financially) for the big3 to do well, meaning more cars”

    Minimum of 13.5 million per year according to someone I heard on Bloomberg Radio. 12 million is not enough.

    Guess what — it may not even be possible to get bicycles next year. Bicycles come from China. A freeze in the letter of credit market is hurting trade. Maybe we can get China to stimulate bicycles.

  • Rex: Politicians don’t get very far by talking about what they are against, but there are lots of politicians who say they are for more investment in rail and for smart growth. In fact, Obama has said that he wants federal transportation funding to be tied to smart growth policies.

    All: It is foolish to criticize Obama for talking about roads and bridges as a short-term response to the current economic emergency. As I have said before, economic stimulus funding has to be spent on projects that are ready to go, where all the planning has been done and they can hire contractors as soon as they get the money. Almost all the ready-to-go projects are roads, very few are rail or other alternatives.

    That is the inevitable short-term response, but let’s see what he does when it is time to reauthorize federal transportation spending and he has to propose a long-term policy.

  • jmc

    He’s never really done anything to back transit or progressive energy policy. His energy policy has been stuck between poverty exacerbating bio-fuels proposals and incredibly eco-unfriendly coal-to-liquids legislation. The L continues to fall apart in a funding crisis. He’s not a progressive on these issues. I know that people “feel” that he is, but that’s just because he’s an incredibly manipulative person.

  • Check out what Obama says about economic growth and about a paradigm shift in economics at http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2008/08/obama-calls-for-paradigm-shift-in.html. We have never heard anything like that from a president before.

  • I don’t know why people just assume Obama is “secretly pro-transit” … There is a nice paragraph on his website… but will this really happen:


    Strengthen Core Infrastructure: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority. As part of this effort, Obama and Biden will create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. These projects will directly and indirectly create up to two million new jobs per year and stimulate approximately $35 billion per year in new economic activity.

    Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities: Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account.

    … so… is he sticking to this or not?

  • The “Urban Policy” section makes it sound like public transportation is just there so poor people can get to their jobs or something– and it’s not mentioned at all in the environment section!

  • ESP

    He’s the president-elect of the United States, not the president-elect of the Northeast Corridor. Sorry, but remember where you live in the larger scheme of things. I would hope one considers the likelihood that the denser states will be more likely to “use it or lose it” on transit anyway, because the states have been taking responsibility for transit and rail investments more for the past decade or so. The Feds are more interested in designing their allocations for things like whatever we do on the border and beyond. We give the states the benefit of the doubt on what transportation mode they want to actually invest in, for better or worse. If Obama wants to help, he could eliminate the double standard of matching federal dollars to a higher proportion on state highway projects than local transit projects. Sure, I would love to see the DOT have a budget even close to the same atmosphere of the Pentagon, but the federal government’s power is mostly in granting incentives in addition to money. Of course, advocates for such things as transit in Washington are always good, but also remember that the Democrats didn’t gain a majority by electing Representatives who always lean to the left of Staten Island. A federal “mobility tax” is a lot farther off than, say . . .

  • Ian Turner


    Your claim that the federal government gives “the states the benefit of the doubt on what transportation mode they want to actually invest in” is totally false. Although states are responsible for proposing projects, the federal government is extremely interested in transportation mode. Interstate highway projects can get a 90% match (e.g., states pay only a tenth), which is extremely rare for public transit or rail projects anywhere in the country. If, as you suggest, the federal government is “more interested in designing their allocations for things like whatever we do on the border and beyond”, why is most federal transportation spending made nowhere near a border?

  • ESP


    The reference to the border and beyond was merely a jab at our federal spending on homeland security and defense…it had nothing to do with transportation. The 90% federal match you mention was already discussed in my prior comment as the “double standard.” I’ll try not to use as much blanket language; point taken.

  • Interesting that no one is talking about about bike/ped in this discussion.

    I guess since you could build an entire nation of bicycle and pedestrian facilities with only several billion dollars, its probably just WAY too cost effective to get the economy going again. (Sarcasm)

    Trust me. I hear where people are coming from. Luckily NJ TRANSIT has got the Access to the Regions Core (ARC) tunnel ready to go, so hopefully that will get some much needed federal dollars; some of which could even replace monies already put on the table by our dead broke state. Also NJ TRANSIT has got quite a few other great rail projects in the wings so hopefully they too will get some serious attention and brought to the fore.


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