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Are we “renewing” a misguided “commitment”?

September 7th, 2010 · No Comments

Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced a $50 billion investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure with an infrastructure investment bank to come to support future investments. There is much of value to this program, from the very simple reality that there is a huge back-log of investment requirements to repair the nation’s infrastructure (let alone bring it to the 21st century) to the nearer term value of providing employment to people across the country.  Our roads are in lousy condition with too large a number of dangerous bridges. Our airports can be better.   Our rail system is a shadow of what it could and should be.   In other words, at least on first glance, needed investment with shorter and longer term benefits.

In announcing the plan for Renewing and Expanding America’s Roads, Railways, and Runways (full announcement after the fold), one specific phrase caused concern:

ROADS: Rebuild 150,000 miles of roads – renewing our commitment to the backbone of our transportation system;

Take a look at this.  The first item is focused on our road network with a dedication to “renewing our commitment to the backbone of our transportation system.”

Sadly, it is basically true that roads are the current backbone of America’s transportation system. It is a scoliotic backbone, one that has twisted and distorted the national system toward an economy overly reliant on (expensive) imported oil and far too polluting for the achieved results. Should we be “renewing our commitment” to our addiction to fossil fuels or should be repairing our roads as part of an investment path to create a sustainable 21st century transportation system?

Thinking broader …

Now, President Obama (and the Obama Administration) understands the need for investments that create something better than today’s system.   The press release specifically speaks to the need for investing in improving the rail network. There is discussion of the need to bring together management of Federal investment in surface transportation — hopefully to reduce the incentive structures that end up fostering highway investment in unSmart Growth ways. There looks to be much of value in this proposal — value in helping Americans get back to work and value in helping build a better transportation infrastructure. Even so, should we really be “renewing our commitment” to a transportation sector (the road network) that has helped foster so many of the nation’s problems from hemorrhaging dollars overseas to pay for oil to the health costs of gasoline/diesel pollution to the 10,000s of dead & wounded on the highways each year to our oil addiction’s contributions to mounting climate chaos? Or, should we be “renewing our commitment” to build a transportation system to support a prosperous, climate-friendly America for the 21st century and beyond?

Some reactions:

  • Brookings, Does the President’s Plan for Fixing America’s Transportation Infrastructure Go Far Enough?, “given the poor state of our transportation network today, our overall investment needs, and the urgency of repairing our broken policy apparatus, many are wondering if the president’s plan goes far enough.”
  • The Transport Politic, President Obama Promotes $50 Billion in Transportation Investments, Again Emphasizes Rail, “After committing $8 billion to such services a year and a half ago during negotiations for the stimulus, the President announced today that he would campaign to devote $50 billion to an improved transportation system, including more spending on high-speed rail, road maintenance, local transit, and better runways. … The Administration’s new proposal seems to be an attempt to accomplish the goals of a new transportation bill without actually passing reauthorization legislation.”

For other reactions / material, see Bill Scher, Campaign for America’s Future, Progressive Breakfast: Roads, Rail and Reduced Business Taxes


White House blog post with President’s speech announcing the $50 billion plan with his remarks here.

Another thing we’ve done is to make long-overdue investments in upgrading our outdated, our inefficient national infrastructure. We’re talking roads. We’re talking bridges. We’re talking dams, levees. But we’re also talking a smart electric grid that can bring clean energy to new areas. We’re talking about broadband Internet so that everybody is plugged in. We’re talking about high-speed rail lines required to compete in a 21st century economy. (Applause.) I want to get down from Milwaukee down to Chicago quick. (Applause.) Avoid a traffic jam.

We’re talking investments in tomorrow that are creating hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs right now.

Because of these investments, and the tens of thousands of projects they spurred all across the country, the battered construction sector actually grew last month for the first time in a very long time. (Applause.)

But, you know, the folks here in the trades know what I’m talking about — nearly one in five construction workers are unemployed. One in five. Nobody has been hit harder than construction workers. And a lot of those folks, they had lost their jobs in manufacturing and went into construction; now they’ve lost their jobs again.

It doesn’t do anybody any good when so many hardworking Americans have been idled for months, even years, at a time when there is so much of America that needs rebuilding.

So, that’s why, Milwaukee, today, I am announcing a new plan for rebuilding and modernizing America’s roads and rails and runways for the long term. (Applause.) I want America to have the best infrastructure in the world. We used to have the best infrastructure in the world. We can have it again. We are going to make it happen. (Applause.)

Over the next six years, over the next six years, we are going to rebuild 150,000 miles of our roads -– that’s enough to circle the world six times. That’s a lot of road. We’re going to lay and maintain 4,000 miles of our railways –- enough to stretch coast to coast. We’re going to restore 150 miles of runways. And we’re going to advance a next-generation air-traffic control system to reduce travel time and delays for American travelers. (Applause.) I think everybody can agree on that. Anybody want more delays in airports?


THE PRESIDENT: No, I didn’t think so. That’s not a Republican or a Democratic idea. We all want to get to where we need to go. I mean, I’ve got Air Force One now, it’s nice. (Laughter.) But I still remember what it was like.

This is a plan that will be fully paid for. It will not add to the deficit over time -– we’re going to work with Congress to see to that. We want to set up an infrastructure bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on the smartest investments. We’re going to continue our strategy to build a national high-speed rail network that reduces congestion and travel times and reduces harmful emissions. We want to cut waste and bureaucracy and consolidate and collapse more than 100 different programs that too often duplicate each other. So we want to change the way Washington spends your tax dollars. We want to reform a haphazard, patchwork way of doing business. We want to focus on less wasteful approaches than we’ve got right now. We want competition and innovation that gives us the best bang for the buck.

But the bottom line is this, Milwaukee — this will not only create jobs immediately, it’s also going to make our economy hum over the long haul. It’s a plan that history tells us can and should attract bipartisan support. It’s a plan that says even in the aftermath of the worst recession in our lifetimes, America can still shape our own destiny. We can still move this country forward. We can still leave our children something better. We can still leave them something that lasts.


The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

President Obama to Announce Plan to Renew and Expand America’s Roads, Railways and Runways

Infrastructure investments one key way to continue recovery and keep our economy growing

WASHINGTON – Today in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, President Barack Obama will announce a comprehensive infrastructure plan to expand and renew our nation’s roads, railways and runways.

This proposal is among a set of targeted initiatives that the President will outline in Cleveland on Wednesday to support our economic recovery and ensure long-term sustainable growth.  The plan builds upon the infrastructure investments the President has already made through the Recovery Act, includes principles the President put forth during the campaign, and emphasizes American competitiveness and innovation.

A fact sheet on the President’s plan announced today is below.

FACT SHEET: Renewing and Expanding America’s Roads, Railways, and Runways

The President today laid out a bold vision for renewing and expanding our transportation infrastructure – in a plan that combines a long-term vision for the future with new investments. A significant portion of the new investments would be front-loaded in the first year.

This plan would build on the investments we have already made under the Recovery Act, create jobs for American workers to strengthen our economy now, and increase our nation’s growth and productivity in the future. At the same time, the plan would reform the way America currently invests in transportation, changing our focus to enhancing competition, innovation, performance, and real analysis that gets taxpayers the best bang for the buck, while moving away from the earmarks and formula debates of the past. In prior years, transportation infrastructure was an issue that both parties worked on together, and the Administration hopes the same can be true now.

Some of the tangible accomplishments of the President’s plan over the next six years include:

  • ROADS: Rebuild 150,000 miles of roads – renewing our commitment to the backbone of our transportation system;
  • RAILWAYS: Construct and maintain 4,000 miles of rail – enough to go coast-to-coast;
  • RUNWAYS: Rehabilitate or reconstruct 150 miles of runway – while putting in place a NextGen system that will reduce travel time and delays.

The President’s plan would accomplish this through:

  • An up-front investment. The President will work with Congress to enact a new up-front investment in our nation’s infrastructure – an investment that would help jump-start additional job creation, while also laying the foundation for future growth. This initial investment would fund improvements in the nation’s surface transportation, as well as our airports and air traffic control system.
  • A vision for the future. The President proposes to pair this with a long-term framework to reform and expand our nation’s investment in transportation infrastructure. Since the end of last year, when the last long-term surface transportation legislation expired, these investments have been continued on a temporary basis, even as the trust fund to finance them has fallen into insolvency. If we are to enjoy the benefits that come from a world-class transportation system, Congress must enact a long-term reauthorization that expands and reforms our infrastructure investments and returns the transportation trust fund to solvency. To jumpstart job creation, this long-run policy front-loads – through a $50 billion up-front investment – a significant share of the new infrastructure resources. As with other long-run policies, the Administration is committed to working with Congress to fully pay for the plan.

The long-term framework includes meaningful reforms:

  • The establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on investments of national and regional significance that often fall through the cracks in the current siloed transportation programs;
  • The integration of high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program to ensure a sustained and effective commitment to a national high speed rail system over the next generation;
  • Streamlining, modernizing, and prioritizing surface transportation investments, consolidating more than 100 different programs and focusing on using performance measurement and “race-to-the-top” style competitive pressures to drive investment toward better policy outcomes.
  • Expanding investments in areas like safety, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and livability – helping to build communities where people have choices about how to travel, including options that reduce oil consumption, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and expand access to job opportunities and housing that’s affordable.

Specifically, the President proposes to make the initial up-front investment in the following areas:

  • Roads. The nation’s highways serve as the backbone of our transportation system. Many roads and bridges are in need of repair and expansion and many of the Americans who want to do this work face high unemployment right now. Our investments would be focused on modernizing the highway system’s critical assets while providing much-needed jobs.
  • Rail. Many parts of transit systems have been allowed to fall into a state of ill-repair. The President’s plan would help address this by making a major new investment in the nation’s bus and rail transit system. The Administration is also committed to expanding public transit systems and would dedicate significant new funding to the “New Starts” program – which supports locally planned, implemented, and operated major transit projects. In addition, the Administration is committed to building on its investments so far in high-speed rail – constructing a system that will increase convenience and productivity, while also reducing our nation’s dependence on oil and cutting down on pollution. The President’s plan would also invest in a long-overdue overhaul of Amtrak’s fleet.
  • Runways & NextGen. The Administration proposes to invest in our nation’s airports by improving their runways and other equipment and facilities. We also propose a robust investment in our effort to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system (NextGen). This investment will help both the FAA and airlines to install new technologies and, among other improvements, move from a national ground-based radar surveillance system to a more accurate satellite-based surveillance system – the backbone of a broader effort to reduce delays for passengers, increase fuel efficiency for carriers, and cut airport noise for those who live and work near airports.
  • Infrastructure Bank. The President proposes to fund a permanent infrastructure bank. This bank would leverage private and state and local capital to invest in projects that are most critical to our economic progress. This marks an important departure from the federal government’s traditional way of spending on infrastructure through earmarks and formula-based grants that are allocated more by geography and politics than demonstrated value. Instead, the Bank will base its investment decisions on clear analytical measures of performance, competing projects against each other to determine which will produce the greatest return for American taxpayers.
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Tags: Energy · Obama Administration · President Barack Obama · transportation