Why Stimulus Money Should Go to Cities, Not States

I spoke earlier today to David Burwell, a co-founder of the Surface Transportation Policy Project who is currently a strategic consultant with the Transportation for America campaign, about how the stimulus package is shaping up for transportation projects, why it might go wrong, and what can be done to set it on the right track.

"He’s putting his reputation and his brand in the hands of a bunch of state DOTs who don’t care very much about the Obama brand."

The main risk, he said, is that stimulus spending might get funneled entirely to the states, which have billions in highway expansion projects in the pipeline (for a taste, check out Friends of the Earth’s Road to Nowhere campaign).
The congressional leadership has not signaled that it will set aside — or "sub-allocate" — funds specifically for cities and metropolitan planning organizations. Neither has Obama’s transportation transition team, which met last month with T4A leaders and other environmental advocates.

Here’s what Burwell had to say, in a nutshell, about the stimulus package. Stay tuned for more from the interview.

The transportation team realizes that the infrastructure piece is a problem
and wants to address it, but they see it as a long-term issue, not a
short-term one. The problem is, you can’t spend this amount of money
without affecting the re-authorization.

The transportation stimulus could be a bunch of bridges to nowhere. Obama’s environmental team is looking not at the
transportation infrastructure piece, they’re looking at all the rest of
it. They’re saying, "Well, it’s green. This really is a green stimulus
package." And they’re probably right, but the transportation piece is
not green, it’s gray-to-black.

This is HR 1. This is going to be the first bill Obama signs — high visibility — and if it has a bunch of roads to nowhere and bridges to nowhere, those things are actually going to be under construction within two years when the midterm elections are coming up. This is a threat to the Obama brand — the idea that this is a new administration, we’re going to do things differently, we’re going in a new direction, we’re done with the old way of doing business. Yet he’s pouring all this money into the old way of doing business in transportation.

They don’t understand the fact that they can’t just say, "We want green infrastructure," and get green infrastructure. There’s a provision of Title 23 of the United States Code, which governs highway spending, that says no matter what the feds say, the states have a sovereign right to pick their own projects. That’s section 145. It says, regardless of what the feds say, "the authorization for appropriation of Federal funds… shall in no way infringe on the sovereign rights of States to determine which projects shall be federally financed." So he doesn’t control the selection process once that money hits the state books. The feds have very little ability to influence it. He’s putting his reputation and his brand in the hands of a bunch of state DOTs who don’t care very much about the Obama brand. That’s a big threat.

The best defense on how these moneys are going to be spent is to sub-allocate it, because it’s the cities that build the bike paths, it’s the cities that build the transit systems, it’s the cities that run the bus lines, it’s the cities that run the rail stations. If you want this money spent on new green infrastructure, get it to the cities. It’s the states that run the highway system. If you give all the money to the states, you know exactly what they’re going to spend the money on. I’d rather have Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg decide how to spend this money than the division administrator of the state DOT.

  • Let’s see if the feds are willing to give the money to cities–which have no influence on redistricting or other matters that impact the federal government–or to the states–with the inevitable likelihood that the money is given as a quid pro quo. For the feds to ignore the quids and the backscratching would be some real change.

  • Rhywun

    The problem with this idea is that transit too, in many areas, is a state function. See: New York and New Jersey. There is no way you can hand a pot of money to Bloomberg and get better transit out of it. You might get more bike lanes but in the short run bike lanes are not what this is about. It’s about roads, buses, and trains–and Bloomberg has almost no say over any of that. That power belongs to Albany.

    I’m not totally sure but I think most of the other big-city Authorities are state-controlled, too.

    In many other areas, transit a *county* function. In fact, I can’t think of a city that runs its own transit system.

  • The Obama brand can not live on typography alone.

  • There is no way you can hand a pot of money to Bloomberg and get better transit out of it.

    Sorry, but this is just not true. The City used to contribute a substantial amount to the MTA budget; this was first cut by Giuliani and continued under Bloomberg. The City was also supposed to pay for the construction of the #7 extension to the Javits Center; I’m not sure what’s happening with that.

  • Rhywun

    > The City was also supposed to pay for the construction of the #7
    > extension to the Javits Center;

    Fair enough; I didn’t know that!

    I still resent the inordinate influence Albany has over NYC Transit.

  • gecko

    Money to cities to develop livable streets and cycling infrastructures — which currently is minimal — is money to the people and the future.

  • Doug Irvine

    Could the Feds give the money directly to the transit authorities?

    Ask each of them to create a plan showing how much Federal funding they would require to make their systems FREE for riders and how much money to support the increased demand.

    It would be easy to audit. Are the systems free? Where is the overcrowding? Are they adding more trains/buses there? If the transit systems play by the rules, the money keeps flowing.

    It’s green, it puts people to work, it encourages density, and it helps the economy as people can move about more easily.

  • Transit shouldn’t always be free, Doug. Free transit won’t necessarily get people out of their cars.

  • Doug Irvine

    I like your article Cap’n. You make some very good points. I agree a sub $100 monthly metro card for someone who can afford to live in Manhattan is essentially “free” already.

    Part of my “free transit” argument is a negotiation. We need to overcome the assumption that rail systems should have to pay for themselves. After all, who pays for the Highways?

    Of course, free transit would bring complaints from people who don’t use the system (can’t as you point out because it doesn’t always go where they need to) and I’m sure current riders would be apprehensive about overcrowding.

    Still, I like the idea of having a carrot in addition to the stick (East River bridge tolls/congestion pricing).

  • jmc

    The Obama brand IS only typography. I must admit, they have great fonts. But the policies? Terrible.

    I think it’s funny that progressive people were all concerned that HRC was too much of a hawk even if she had more clout on domestic issues than the corporate whore anti-heath care reform, pro-coal BO.

    Yet I was repeatedly instructed to have “faith” in this miraculous leader.

    Now, what do we have? HRC as Hawk In Chief and political-corporate whoring up the wazzoo.

    BO will throw transit under the bus as soon as it suits him.

  • jmc, sorry that your candidate lost in the long-over primaries. I know how it feels, I’ve picked losers too. This time Obama was my choice from the beginning because I saw in him a rare, charismatic Democrat who could win elections (check), someone who could bring American government into the internet era (change.gov, a good start), and someone willing to think through policy and explain to the governed why initially unpleasant choices are sometimes the better ones (???). It’s been a pretty good year for Democrats if you step back a tiny bit. Remember when a lot of party members thought you and I were both fools for wanting a candidate that happened to be female or black? That we were being so, so foolish to overlook the safe white man John Edwards—I couldn’t have written a better repudiation for that cowardice than what transpired.

    But I see that my continued optimism, my terribly naive faith (“hope”, actually) that a candiate would stay true to his expressed principles a full month ago is still on your mind. Another grudge! (Really, this is not good for digestion.) I have an idea: I’ll try to moderate my optimism if you will try to moderate your negativity. We all need to negotiate with the president-elect to see that our views on transportation are represented in his administration. That means neither blindly accepting whatever Obama does (like with the stimulus) nor insulting him and his supporters at every turn. Health care is for another forum, and dropping bitter bombs all over any discussion where Obama’s name comes up is not helpful in making anything good happen.

  • jmc

    As one of the few progressives to not accept Obama as my personal savior (and I thought that Hillary was too hawkish as well, and wouldn’t vote for either of them), I’ve taken *quite* a battering already from people who have surrendered their once keen sense of criticism to a very well-run marketing campaign.

    I don’t know if it was his stance on coal or marriage equality that really turned me off more, but I was amazed when people didn’t even know that he held these positions, or insisted that he held the opposite, or “didn’t really mean it.”

    I’m sure Obama will bring change to transit– pennies! And it’s because he can count on the good will of pro-transit people. If people criticized him on such things maybe he would throw some money and support to transit to shut them up. However, by using this slot as a spot to throw bipartisanship a bone, he obviously doesn’t see it as important.

    Perhaps I can throw away my cynicism born of experience and begin to think magically and believe that America’s urban transit revolution will be run by a Republican from Peoria.

    I’ll say this– It’s not completely impossible!

    I admit that it was a good year for the Democratic party, but it was a disaster for progressive people (proposition 8, Gates as SecDef, etc.).

  • jmc

    I have no grudge against you… I understand your wish to be optimistic, it’s a natural human desire.

    I think that Obama has taken advantage of progressive people, and I’m worried that during this economic downturn such issues as climate change and transit are just going to be completely ignored.

  • “Perhaps I can throw away my cynicism born of experience and begin to think magically”

    See this is just not very respectful, or accurate. It is possible to be optimistic and cynical (or calculatingly realistic) at the same time. I would even say that it’s most healthy to be both things. If you’re so sure things will turn out badly, why not just end it all now?

    Maybe your friends deceived themselves, but it’s common knowledge that no front-running presidential candidates supported equal marriage rights, or told the truth about energy. I wonder who you voted for, if not Clinton, surely not the soap-operatic Edwards? But this isn’t the time or place. If you want to litter Streetsblog with self-satisfied, i-told-y’all-so anti-obama bitching, there is nothing I can do to stop you. It will have the opposite effect on me though, that I can’t say deprecatory things about Obama (like pointing out how his effective visual brand was important to winning the election and not much else, a simple fact of history) because you will come in and crap all over the lighthearted note.

    If you can’t see the criticism of Obama from pro-transit people going on right now, including Obama primary voters, you’ve had enough sherry for tonight.

  • jmc

    There is plenty of criticism from pro-transit people on Streetblog now, and it’s important to let this be known to the world at large. You’d be surprised at the degree of misinformation around.

    I wrote in myself this year. I think I could do a pretty good job, and I think I’d make better cabinet picks (though the DOE one is pretty good, I’d prefer to give the job to a chemical engineer who deals with existing technologies rather than future ones). I would really put a lot of money into transit and energy infrastructure. You would be amazed at the built environment! And oh, the state dinners would be magnificent. I think I would eventually win over everyone.

  • “In many other areas, transit a *county* function. In fact, I can’t think of a city that runs its own transit system.”

    One example would be San Francisco, which effectively runs its own transit system. Of course, this is an unusual situation because the city of San Francisco and county of San Francisco are consolidated and share a mayor and board of supervisors.

  • gecko

    Cities solve the transportation problem by bringing everything close together.

    We were not made to live the car-imposed nightmares of much of the world’s cities.

    Sufficient funds to our cities will fix this quite easily.



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