When is Obama going to have his Eisenhower moment?
Ask a transportation expert who the last great transportation president was, and you're not bound to find much agreement. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in the 1950s championed the creation of the Interstate System, is a common choice, though Jimmy Carter merits mention for deregulating the trucking industry and airline and air-freight transportation, and Ronald Reagan, for raising the gas tax and dedicating part of it to mass transit.
On the subject of the current president, there’s more of a consensus. One point of agreement is that he has talked a great game, but has been unable to do much to deliver. Another is that he might be able to do more if he gets a second term, but that even then it would depend on whether the upcoming election produces a Congress that is, one way or another, less hostile to his agenda.
“Even Eisenhower didn’t mention transportation as much as this guy,” said Joshua Schank, a former transportation adviser to Hillary Clinton who is now president of the Eno Center for Transportation.
“It’s hard not to be frustrated that he hasn’t acted on it more,” he added.
At the moment, it can safely be said that building support for increased transportation spending is not the president's top priority, as he heads into a general election with the economy just showing signs of recovery. Infrastructure funding—and what were once packaged as stimulus projects, generally—have taken a back seat to, say, the price of gas and, by extension, the conspicuously expanded drive for domestic energy resources.
The lesson that Obama and the administration seem to have taken from the times they have pushed hard for spending on big transportation-infrastructure projects is that they're a tougher sell than expected, or at least that voters don't necessarily see them as the economic generators they eventually become.
So, for example, the president insisted that the federal stimulus act include $8 billion for high-speed rail, but then absorbed a great deal of grief over ensuing allocations, which were criticized as politically motivated.
And while spending on less costly projects has been easier for the administration, politically, it has also been less rewarding. For instance, the stimulus included $1.5 billion in funding for so-called TIGER grants, a small pot of money (it was later expanded to $2.6 billion) that’s been sprinkled around the country. They hardly got noticed nationally, other than by transportation advocates, who felt they were too small to make any meaningful change to the physical transportation system itself.
(There was a total of $48 billion in stimulus spending on projects around the country, but aside from the high-speed rail component and the TIGER grants, those funds are generally considered to have been inserted at the initiative of Congressional leaders and were not part of a coordinated national transportation strategy.)
The reforms that transportation boosters have in mind are, generally speaking, more profound: an ongoing commitment to paying for large capital projects and maintenance of existing infrastructure; sustainable sources of revenue to offset that cost; alterations to the system of incentives that drive commercial and residential growth, and to the metrics that measure the efficiency and cost of moving people around their regions and across the country.
“The federal tax code subsidizes some really bad development,” says Andrew Goldberg, managing director of government relations at the American Institute of Architects, which has advocated tax-code reforms. “A lot of the funding goes toward sprawl, toward building where land is cheapest."
“I know this isn’t sexy," said Schank, "but he could direct D.O.T. to start doing the research necessary to implement real performance measures and accountability for transportation.”
In other words, the administration could lay out a precise vision for how it would like to see the money it controls spent, and support that vision accordingly.
The American Society of Engineers says there’s a $3 trillion backlog in surface transportation spending. The United States spends a mere 2.4 percent of its G.D.P. on transportation and water infrastructure, compared to Europe’s 5 percent and China’s 9.
Many transportation experts also argue for a significantly higher tax on gas.
This is politically difficult, if not impossible, as illustrated by the way Republicans have latched onto currently high gas prices as an argument against Obama, and the president's high-profile response, cheerleading the expansion of domestic oil and gas exploration as a solution.
But the fact is gas here is cheap, relatively speaking: Americans are likely at any given time to be paying about half as much for fuel as Europeans. Yet gas-related revenue is where much of the nation’s infrastructure funding comes from.
“We’ve got one of the lowest federal gasoline taxes in the world,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. “The other countries that have gasoline taxes as low as ours include Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait.”
And that’s not the only issue with the gas tax, which is about 18 cents per gallon and which provides much of the funding for the nation's highways and mass transit (New York’s M.T.A. derives some $1 billion from it per year).
It's not pegged to inflation, so it provides ever less revenue in real terms. Also, it's a victim of its own success: Today, thanks in part to the fact that the gas tax makes it more expensive to burn fuel, cars are much more fuel-efficient. Less consumption equals less revenue.
But while transit-dedicated revenue from gas is going down, the need to spend money on the nation's aging transportation infrastructure is going up.
“The interstate system, most of it is already approaching half a century old,” says Yaro. “It’s at the end of its useful life. Big stretches need to be rebuilt and there’s no money to rebuild them, much less create any new capacity in the system."
The president, at least rhetorically, recognizes that. He's proposed a half-trillion-dollar, six-year transportation plan. And he’s suggested a $50 billion infrastructure bank that would leverage private funding.
As of now, they're still just proposals.
“So far he hasn’t really put his political capital behind it because he has other priorities,” said Schank.
In this year’s State of the Union, the president made a strong argument for infrastructure spending.
“During the Great Depression, America built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “After World War II, we connected our States with a system of highways. Democratic and Republican administrations invested in great projects that benefited everybody, from the workers who built them to the businesses that still use them today.”
“In the next few weeks, I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects.
"But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.”
The “you” in that sentence was Congress.
But the Republican-controlled House is looking to cut transportation spending, not increase it. It will be all the president can do to get them to agree to pass the Senate's version of this year's transportation-spending bill, which more or less extends the status quo.
“The White House hasn’t recommended funding sources, and the Congress has been reluctant to propose new revenues,” says Yaro, of the Regional Plan Association.
House Republicans in particular have staked out a radical position on infrastructure funding, going so far as to propose eliminating mass-transit financing entirely from the gas tax.
In fact, even if Obama wins a second term, his ability to do anything much more than hold the line on current spending levels would probably be contingent on his party winning both houses of Congress.
"I think then he could really use the hammer of the bully pulpit of a sitting president who does’t have to run again," said Chris Ward, who served as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's executive director before moving to construction firm Dragados. "I think he’ll be a very different president once he gets reelected."
“I’ll tell you this, if he wins a second term, he’s going to come into a second term with some domestic priorities,” said Schank. “Investing in transportation is not a bad way to invest his political capital.”
In the transportation nerd’s fantasy scenario, one in which funding was bountiful and politicians were programmed to spend it judiciously, the president would direct federal government to do things like rebuild the nation’s highways, expand its rail and transit networks, and improve connections between the two. The country could subsidize freight rail, unclogging the highways. The government could fund passenger rail too, and do it where it’s needed, like, say, in the Northeast corridor.
“The interconnection between highway and rail systems in many places could be done much better,” said Paul Yarossi, chairman of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “I think we could improve our ability to move product to and from docks and piers, how we integrate our rail and truck traffic together could be done better. It’s just a matter of taking a look at what our transportation system might look like 20 years from now and seeing if there’s a better way of making the different modes of transportation work together.”
And maybe, in this scenario, the president would fight for new sources of revenue.
“The thing that everyone is dreaming about is that he’ll throw his weight behind a gas tax increase,” says Schank.
If not a new gas tax, or vehicle-miles-traveled tax, then, something else.
“You have to let the states toll interstate highways,” says Yaro. “And if not that then we’re down to bake sales.”