Show Us the Reform, We’ll Show You the Money: President Obama’s Transportation Proposal Deserves Our Support

Statement by CNT President Scott Bernstein

CHICAGO (February 17, 2011)—This week President Barack Obama proposed a transportation budget to guide the nation’s public investments for the next six years. The budget announcement coincided with the release of a new poll from the Rockefeller Foundation examining American sentiment toward transportation infrastructure investment. The Administration budget closely aligns with public opinion, proposing meaningful reform and sound investment. As our public discourse focuses on reining in the deficit, it is also important that we get serious about finding ways to improve the transportation infrastructure that is essential to household, community and national economic security.

The Rockefeller Foundation poll found that 66 percent of voters said that ‘improving the country’s transportation infrastructure is either extremely or very important.’ Eighty percent of those polled agreed that federal funding to improve and modernize transportation ‘will boost local economies and create millions of jobs from construction to manufacturing to engineering.’ Meanwhile, 64 percent said that ‘how the government currently spends money on building and maintaining our transportation infrastructure is inefficient and unwise.’

The lessons in the polling are straightforward: people believe in good investment, and they are willing to back up that belief with their tax dollars, so long as they feel transportation investments are made based on facts rather than politics. Pres. Obama’s federal transportation budget hews to the sentiment revealed in the poll; it combines common sense reforms with the transformative investments necessary to keep America globally competitive and economically secure.

It’s about time. For more than 30 years the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has championed improved economic and environmental viability for communities by tapping into their existing assets, from showing Rust Belt cities how their freight and passenger rail can revitalize their economies to quantifying the best urban infill development opportunities around existing transit stations to connect people with jobs and amenities at lower cost. As transportation advocates—and taxpayers—we’re particularly encouraged by the themes laid out in the president’s ambitious $556 billion plan, which include:

Making performance count—The budget calls for tightening the screening criteria for choosing worthy state, regional and local government projects so outcomes result in transportation networks that are effective, reliable and affordable. By dedicating funds to a new competitive leadership fund and a National Infrastructure Bank, the budget proposal would marry the best of sound policy and rigorous marketplace underwriting.

Making place matter—The Obama Administration budget proposal strengthens support for the interagency sustainability partnership between the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, the Dept. of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that is committed to innovative place-based strategies. The partnership essentially tears down silos and provides a vision at the federal level and then gives local and regional entities leeway in proposing projects that compete nationally for federal funding. The federal transportation budget aligns with this thinking by strengthening local and regional planning functions since those on the ground know their needs best and have always been the true implementers of federal policy.

Leveraging scarce resources—Of the $1.5 trillion that the Eno Transportation Foundation estimates is spent annually in the United States on all forms of transportation, a mere 12 percent comes from federal, state and local government in roughly equal thirds. That means the federal contribution to transportation is just 4 percent of the total. The federal Highway Trust Fund, the primary source of federal transit and surface transportation dollars, is a scarce resource. The Obama budget proposal would promote the idea of ‘fix it first,”’ improving and upgrading existing infrastructure before building new, which is a common sense approach. The budget would also offer incentives for accelerating investments that deliver economic progress on-time and under budget.

Getting real about transportation costs for people—The experience of the past three or four years—from the 2008 spike in gas prices to the economic implosion caused by the housing bubble—has uncovered how much of the population is hanging by a thread. While the gas price increases from 2000 to 2008 and the 2008 price spike didn’t cause the economic crisis, our research suggests that communities with more transportation options, whether in the form of mass transit systems or simply more accessibility between people and what they do, are less financially vulnerable.

Based on an analysis of numerous metro areas using the Housing + Transportation® Affordability Index (htaindex.cnt.org), households living in location-inefficient communities saw an increase of up to 10 percent in transportation costs from 2000 to 2008, while those living in efficient places with transportation choice experienced a 2 percent increase over the same period. Making investments that create a world class transportation system can increase transportation affordability and reduce expenses for households, create jobs, and help businesses improve the movement of goods while lowering costs.

Making smart choices—The proposed budget reforms are informed by transportation projects funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). An analysis by Smart Growth America, U.S. PIRG and CNT found that states and regions that used ARRA money for transit projects created or supported twice as many jobs per dollar as did major highway projects. Given those results, it makes sense that the budget would double funding for transit improvements over previous budgets.

President Obama’s budget is positioning the federal government as the visionary of the transportation infrastructure modernization for the nation while relying on local and regional governments to generate the location-specific transportation solutions that will help communities become more economically and environmentally resilient.

The president is following the path of other presidents—Republican and Democrat—who have pushed the public to support critical investments that make the nation stronger and a world leader in innovation. In introducing the Defense Highway Act, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower stated that ‘our very mission is in our name—we are a United States of America, and without that we’d be merely a collection of separate parts.’ Roughly 100 years prior, Pres. Abraham Lincoln found creative ways to partner with states, municipal governments and investors to build a transcontinental railway.

Ninety-one percent of those polled by the Rockefeller Foundation believe that ‘our generation has a responsibility to the future to invest in America’s infrastructure—just as our parents and grandparents did.’ CNT also agrees with that statement, and we support the president’s transportation investment proposal. Investing in America’s infrastructure will bring home the benefits of sustainable transportation and build our local economies. The ideas and the public support are there. Now our federal leaders need to work together to make it happen.

###

Founded in 1978, CNT is a Chicago-based think-and-do tank that works nationally to advance urban sustainability by researching, inventing and testing strategies that use resources more efficiently and equitably. Its programs focus on climate, energy, natural resources, transportation, and community development. Visit www.cnt.org for more information.