President Obama Should Focus on Solving Transportation Problems not Political Theater

Lost in the partisan gridlock and blame game in Washington over the President’s proposed $50 billion infrastructure proposal is whether the bill will actually improve transportation. In general it will not. The stimulus style spending is short-term and does not provide the long-term stability needed to build major infrastructure projects.

The President has traveled to the Brent Spence Bridge in Ohio and the Key Bridge in Virginia in campaign style rallies touting his $50 billion infrastructure bill. Building or rebuilding infrastructure requires many steps before construction including Purpose and Need, Environmental Review, Design, Buying Land, Survey, and Drainage. While the process should be streamlined, it will never be a one-year process. Since this $50 billion is a short-term pile of cash, neither bridge will receive a dollar of the President’s proposed funding. This photo opportunity was political theater. With the President’s approach to transportation, the U.S. would require an annual $50 billion stimulus that is unrealistic and unaffordable.

Short-term fixes are very problematic because they do not allow transportation agencies to plan for the future. Agencies need a consistent reliable budget to plan long-term projects. Long-term transportation bills typically include loans. Short-term bills use grants that increase the deficit. Short-term bills offer no guarantee that funding will be available next year. Stimulus-like short-term fixes include numerous strings and often prevent funds from being used on the best projects.

President Obama has hardly been the biggest transportation booster. During 2009 when the previous transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, expired, the Democratic Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar proposed a new transportation bill. Many of the President’s biggest supporters in the Environmental community were thrilled with Oberstar’s bill because it devoted substantially more funding to non-motorized transportation programs than any previous bill. Although he had misgivings, Ranking Member Mica was onboard. The House Ways and Means committee was looking for a signal from the President on whether to find funding for the Oberstar’s proposal. President Obama, concerned with other issues, indicated that he only wanted a short-term extension. The President punted on fixing the problem. The bill died in committee and Representative Oberstar, who was an expert on transportation and 36 year member of Congress, was defeated by newcomer Chip Cravaack in the 2010 elections. Oberstar’s bill was significantly friendlier to the President’s supporters in non-motorized transportation and public transit than any bill that will be drafted this year.

Moving forward to 2011, The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has drafted a new six-year bill, and the committee is considering revenue from increased oil and gas leasing to fund it. Today, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is marking up a proposed two-year transportation bill. What are the President’s views about a new long-term transportation bill? Who knows? The last White House response in September focused on passing an eighth renewal of SAFETEA-LU. Congress complied.

A new long-term bill is critical in addressing infrastructure needs. It is time for the President to stop the politics and focus on the needed reauthorization.