Missing the Train on the Recovery Package

In a problem with both versions of the bill, the highway investment isn't explicitly targeted to repair and maintenance of crumbling roads and bridges.
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Our new President and Vice President rode the rails to D.C., echoes of history in the air. Obama's deliberate choice of a train for his inaugural journey and Biden's famed love for Amtrak raise hopes that the new Administration will make public transportation a priority. Unfortunately, the current recovery bill heads directly down the opposite track.

Transportation drives our oil dependence and our global warming impact. The sector is responsible for 70 percent of our oil consumption and second only to electrical generation in its global warming footprint. Congress finally raised fuel economy standards in the 2007 energy bill, for the first time in decades. And this will help. But far more needs to be done, and the current bill just cut allocations for intercity rail almost 80 percent from new House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar's original proposal, and made similar cuts for public transit.

A month ago, Oberstar -- a longtime supporter of transportation alternatives -- proposed serious investment in rail and transit as part of the recovery bill. He did ask for $30 billion for highways (which could be new highways or repairs). But he also asked for $12 billion for public transit, and $5 billion for intercity rail (including high-speed rail). In an oil-addicted nation and a world of escalating climate change, this was far too much on roads, but at least transit was a significant part of the mix.

The recovery bill unveiled last week contains several important steps in other key environmental areas, including support of loan guarantees for renewable energy, weatherization programs for low-income families, and a boost to alternative energy research and development. But compared to Oberstar's proposal, let alone where we need to go, its transportation provisions are a major retreat.

The bill created by the House leadership, the appropriations committee, and the Obama economic team would cut $2 billion proposed by Oberstar to help transit agencies provide service for growing ridership. This follows a 6.5 percent increase in transit use from 2007, the biggest in 25 years. Meanwhile, local agencies are considering trimming services nationwide, due to fiscal strain from the slumping economy. Intercity rail faces even bigger cuts, from $5 billion to $1.1 billion. We already trail the rest of the developed world in public transportation of every kind. Europe now plans to build thousands of new miles of rail lines, and China is adding a high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and Beijing. After eight years of malign neglect during the Bush administration, we now risk falling even further behind, when this kind of infrastructure is critical to both our economic efficiency and our ability to tackle global climate change.

In a problem with both versions of the bill, the highway investment isn't explicitly targeted to repair and maintenance of crumbling roads and bridges. That's indefensible, since the Department of Transportation already considers more than half of miles driven on pavement as less than "good ride quality," and that backlogged repair projects can be undertaken quickly, generating nine percent more than new highway construction. For any money spent on highways, the commonsense approach is "fix it first."

But most of the transportation money will likely be spent on new highways, with a far worse energy impact. Every year, U.S. public transportation saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline and cuts 37 million metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution. It is a key foundation for additional progress toward energy and climate security. Because in-city rail transit is electric, it has the potential to be readily fueled by renewable alternatives. And of course it also offers options for those two old, too young, or too poor to drive. New highway construction also promotes endless sprawl, with accompanying inefficient use of resources, whereas public transportation alternatives foster more clustered development, including in suburban areas, making it possible for people to avoid lengthy commutes for work, shopping, and even for socializing and entertainment. The more transit alternatives are interconnected, the more they build on each other, providing transportation choices, easing congestion on existing roads, and promoting smart growth that ultimately costs less and burns up far less time for people in daily commutes.

There's broad public support for recovery approaches that prioritize transportation alternatives. A new nation-wide survey from the National Association of Realtors and Transportation for America shows that the public is on-board for more transit funding, as well as for the common-sense idea of repairing existing highways before building new ones. A whopping 89 percent of those surveyed agreed that transportation investments should support the goal of reducing energy use. Three-quarters wanted the plan to support lower carbon emissions. 80 percent preferred prioritizing transit and repair rather than new highways. And 45 percent believed new highways should be excluded from the plan altogether. The survey also showed that the public wants our new national team to preserve the environment, reduce dependence on foreign oil, and increase transportation choices even if this delays job creation.

All of this is happening as new, hopeful leadership steams into Washington. As that train pulls up, the legislative train is only just leaving the station, and it needs to make several stops before becoming law. The highway lobby and its allies will have their say. They already have. It's time now for the rest of us to get on board and convince the new administration to change course by boosting investment in transit and rail.

Deron Lovaas is the Federal Transportation Policy Director for the Natural Resource Defense Council and Chair of the Air Quality Public Advisory Committee for the metropolitan Washington, D.C. region. Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. See www.paulloeb.org.

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