On the Road to Nowhere

The recently signed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act promises atonement for years of infrastructural neglect, and transit-advocacy groups have been working hard to promote transportation as a federal priority. Now, with $42.3 billion of stimulus money in the federal pipeline for highway infrastructure, rail, and transit -- the largest investment of its kind since construction of the interstate highway system -- many lawmakers and mass-transit supporters are concerned about how and where the funds will be distributed.

The legislation includes $8 billion for high-speed rail and $6.9 billion for transit, giving these modes more than half the amount allocated for highways -- a significant shift from the previous administration’s four-to-one highway-to-rail investment ratio. But many advocates remain less than fully satisfied. They insist the archaic public-transit system requires much greater investment before it can meet 21st-century challenges. Mariia Zimmerman, policy director for Transportation For America, recently spoke with the Prospect about her organization’s efforts to build a coalition in favor of clean, green transportation, and the stimulus bill’s potential moving forward.

How pleased are you with the outcome of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?

I think we were generally pleased with what’s in the bill. We were hoping to see a little stronger investment in the transit portion of the bill. We were hoping that there might be some operating assistance for some of the transit agencies to allow them the flexibility to use some of their funds for transit projects. We had hoped that there would be more money invested in what we would call “new transit,” where there is a pretty big queue of projects in the federal pipeline waiting to get funding -- over $5 billion worth of projects that could move in 120 days. We’re pleased that part of the $29 billion for highways includes a $1.5 billion program that can help to fund rail, be it freight rail or passenger rail or multimodal port investments. The package seems a promising start to seeing a more balanced portfolio of transportation.

During negotiations over the stimulus, did you find it difficult to maintain transportation’s status as a high priority, especially in comparison to other administration priorities such as education, alternative-energy research, and tax cuts?

It was slightly mixed. There was a strong recognition that infrastructure investment should be an important part of the package. Certainly we hear President Obama talking about rebuilding our highways and bridges and investing in transit. There was a moment of anxiety by many people when we heard comments earlier this year that Larry Summers was questioning whether transportation investment would yield significant job-creation numbers. That was actually helpful for us, to not have it be an accepted given, but to really have to make the case for why transportation was important to short- and long-term recovery. We need to do a better job making the connection with people that if you’re looking at energy independence and a new economy, then transportation investments are a part of that. Transportation is 95 percent oil dependant and contributes one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. It has to be a part of our clean-energy solution.

Why do you think more people have not yet made that connection?

It requires us to look at the investment decisions we’re making, and that is a frightening prospect for some folks. But the transportation industry itself has been a bit behind, so it’s not a surprise that our elected officials are not quite up to speed, because I don’t think we ever look at Congress as being the lead change agent in America. We’re seeing a lot of unity between people in labor, transportation, and environment to see how these things are linked and how investing in something like high-speed rail is actually creating new jobs in construction, manufacturing, design, and engineering. That can be the new paradigm moving forward, and we don’t have to have this either-or mentality that we have to have either highways or rail.

I think the public is starting to get it. We’ve done some poll work where we’ve asked the American public, “If you had $100, how would you invest that money for transportation?” About $62 they would be putting into transit and rail, and they would also be putting additional funds into highways. So folks are starting to see those connections. But transportation and infrastructure is something we take for granted, so to make it a public-policy issue is always a struggle.

What would be the best barometer to measure the effectiveness of the transportation elements of this bill?

The best barometer is probably going to be job creation and economic impact but also if the money is getting out to states and localities and transit agencies in a timely fashion to use the money. Are they actually investing in good projects that are creating jobs and are helping to address our transportation needs? If the only question is, “How fast are we spending the money?” than that’s missing the more important question of how well the money is being spent.

So what comes next? What will be the major challenges and opportunities for transportation reform moving forward?

We really do have a moment in time here, as our congressional leaders, our president, our governors, our mayors are realizing that we must change our direction and question a lot of our assumptions. Having a president who’s talking about having a new vision, thinking more comprehensively about how we’re planning transportation investments, about needing new investments in high-speed rail -- that leadership is huge and cannot be underestimated. Over the past eight years, we never heard much from the administration about transportation, even when we had bridges falling down.