With the country mired in two major wars and millions of Americans unable to find work, improving rail lines, conducting road repairs, and building bike lanes might rank low on the list of national priorities.
But here's the thing: Global climate change isn't going to wait for the U.S. to get out of the recession, and the federal transportation bill, up for reauthorization this year, offers a prime way of tackling it. At a time when unemployment seems fixed at 10 percent, it also offers an opportunity for the Obama administration to make headway on the jobs front.
"[The transportation-reauthorization bill] is arguably the biggest policy lever that can still be pulled by Congress in a way that helps to reduce oil dependence and reduce pollution due to the combustion of oil," says Deron Lovaas, the transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the environmental organizations lobbying for a bill that invests more heavily in mass transit.
Congress last passed a comprehensive transportation-spending bill in 2003. That law expired in 2009, and for the last two years, the Department of Transportation has been running on temporary extensions. The current one expires on September 30. For policy-makers, the crucial question is whether we will continue spending our money on highways and roads or undergo a long-overdue shift to mass transit that creates bikeable, walkable, and more environmentally friendly communities.
For its part, the White House has proposed spending $556 billion over six years on transportation -- almost double what the 2003 legislation appropriated. The new funds will be used to create a "National Infrastructure Bank" to pay for bridge and road repairs, and the bill also provides $119 billion for mass-transit projects. President Barack Obama's proposal makes headway in correcting some of the perversities of transportation policy that have long put mass transit at a disadvantage. The federal government now pays up to 80 percent of the cost of highway construction (state and local governments cover the rest), but only 50 percent of the cost on average for mass transit. Competitive-grant programs -- modeled after the Department of Education's "Race to the Top" system -- would help redirect funds from highways to mass transit. The Federal Railroad Administration would get an extra $8 billion for high-speed rail projects.
Republicans -- especially anti-government radicals in the House -- are likely to oppose such an increase. But that doesn't mean the legislation is dead. Transportation has historically been an area of bipartisan collaboration for the obvious reason that transportation spending is one of the surest ways for legislators to draw federal dollars to their districts. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat and chair of the of Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, and ranking member James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, couldn't be more at odds when it comes to climate change and oil dependence. Both of them, however, have an interest in delivering federal infrastructure projects to their constituents.
For progressives, the trick will be ensuring that a greater proportion of those projects support mass transit instead of the usual highway spending.
Environmentalists' interest in the transportation bill is clear. Transportation accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation's oil use and about 25 percent of its carbon-dioxide emissions. Greens' sound bites about breaking our "oil addiction" and "dumping the pump" are useful when preaching to the choir. But the fact is that Americans will be hooked on oil until they have workable alternatives to the automobile. Investing in urban light rail and regional high-speed rail networks; boosting funds for bus systems; constructing bike lanes; and focusing on repairing existing roads instead of building news ones are a first step in changing, at a fundamental level, how we move around. If we want Americans to ditch their cars, that will require giving them choices, and that means creating a mass-transit system that makes the car -- and not the bus -- look like a pain.
NRDC's Lovaas estimates that the White House plan would save the United States about 1 million barrels of oil a day by 2030. That would reduce daily greenhouse-gas emission by more than 300,000 metric tons. Improving the transit system would, in turn, open up new opportunities to create denser "new urbanist" communities -- ones that are pedestrian-friendly, with a vibrant mix of retail and housing -- that will further weaken our cars' grip on us.
Reducing the reliance on our cars, of course, also serves U.S. national-security interests. "Building walkable, urban places is the number one way we are going to have energy security and not buy as much oil from nasty people and to address climate change," says Christopher Leinberger, a developer who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Some labor unions are joining with environmentalists in pushing for a transportation bill that prioritizes transit and road repair over new road construction. According to the Laborers' International Union, a six-year transportation bill that invests substantially in mass transit could create up to 8 million jobs nationwide. Trade unionists also point out that repairing the country's decrepit roads and bridges (the American Society of Civil Engineers rates the country's infrastructure as a D) is essential for sustaining the United States' long-term economic competitiveness. "These are the things that America has to do to maintain its leadership in the 21st century," says David Miller, a spokesperson for the Laborers'. "You look at China, they are spending 10 percent of their GDP on bullet trains and super highways. This is not something we can fall behind on."
For Democrats, there's a larger political victory to be had. In few other policy areas is the importance of collective government action so clear. After all, no individual can repair a bridge or build a road by himself. Public-works projects require the government, and Americans understand that. A survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 84 percent of Americans would pay 1 percent more on their taxes if the funds were targeted for infrastructure.
Many progressives complained that the president's last State of the Union speech, with its emphasis on infrastructure and investment, was tepid and lacked vision. But it might also have been a strategically savvy way to emphasize the kind of government action that almost all Americans support. Putting muscle into reauthorizing the transportation bill is smart politics and good policy. At this point, with the legislation mired in the trench warfare of committee, it's up to congressional Democrats, especially Boxer in the Senate, to move the reauthorization forward. And for that to happen, some grassroots pressure from progressives would help.