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Inside Obama’s Transpo Budget: “Historic Increase” in Transit Funding

A few more details about the Obama administration’s proposal for a new transportation bill surfaced today when the president unveiled his 2015 budget proposal.

The topline numbers came out last week and look good for transit, biking, and walkability. The White House’s four-year, $302 billion surface transportation plan proposes an “historic increase” in transit funding — from $12.3 billion to $22.3 billion annually. The budget also proposes $600 million in annual TIGER spending, a new program with $4 billion annually to help modernize state departments of transportation, and $19.1 billion for intercity rail spread over the next four years.

The President's budget proposal calls for significant increases in funding for passenger rail. Image: Flickr

The White House budget proposal calls for significant increases in funding for transit. Photo: Trimet/Flickr

While White House transportation proposals have gone nowhere, with Obama at odds with House Republicans, there’s a slim chance that the administration and the GOP will align this time over how to pay for the program.

The budget document released today offers more information on the White House’s plan to keep wasteful highway expansion in check. The budget introduces a new program that appears to be aimed at reforming old-fashioned state DOTs. The administration proposes $4 billion annually for a new program it calls “Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation,” which is “designed to create incentives for state and local partners to adopt critical reforms.” The administration says this funding would be intended to be spent on “modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options,” and “peak travel demand management,” such as tolling or congestion pricing programs.

The budget document also promises “a fix-it-first approach for highway and transit grants”:

States and localities have incentives to emphasize new investments over improving the condition of the existing infrastructure. The Administration’s reauthorization proposal will underscore the importance of preserving and improving existing assets.

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Obama to Propose Four-Year Transpo Bill Funded By “Business Tax Reform”

President Obama will unveil a proposal for a $302 billion, four-year transportation bill during a speech today in Minnesota, according to an announcement from the White House. A fact sheet from the administration indicates the proposal would increase dedicated funding for transit more than funding for highways.

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan he says is part of his "year of action." Photo: PRX.org

Obama will appear in St. Paul, Minnesota today to announce a new transportation plan. Photo: PRX.org

The proposal would represent a 38 percent spending increase over the current $109 billion, 2-year law, known as MAP-21, and is the most concrete long-term transportation bill proposed by the Obama administration, which has never put forward a funding stream until now.

The $300 billion spending plan does not raise the gas tax. Instead, it calls for directing some $150 billion from “business tax reform” to help shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to go broke late this summer. The White House has not released more information about how the funding stream would operate, but the press release calls it ”one-time transition revenue,” so the idea seems to be that in four years, a different revenue stream would have to be identified.

The White House announcement said Obama’s proposal “will show how we can invest in the things we need to grow and create jobs by closing unfair tax loopholes, lowering tax rates, and making the system more fair.”

Such a funding method would represent a major break from relying on the gas tax to pay for the national transportation program. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in two decades, and inflation and rising fuel efficiency have eroded its value. In 2012, the federal gasoline tax brought in $35 billion, but the feds allocated $54 billion in transportation spending, with other sources, including general tax revenues, making up the difference.

Obama will also announce the upcoming $600 million round of funding for TIGER, US DOT’s popular competitive grant program for local transportation projects, which has already been approved by Congress. The program has funded $1 billion in city transit projects, nearly as much for intercity rail, and $153 million in biking and walking projects since it was introduced in 2009.

More details about the president’s “vision for a 21st century transportation infrastructure” will be available after the speech today in St. Paul, which will take place inside the city’s restored Union Depot train station.

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Obama’s Climate Speech: Mostly Mum on Transportation

President Obama announced a sweeping package of measures to address combat climate change today. But with a couple of exceptions, he was largely silent on the third of carbon emissions that come from the transportation sector.

President Obama outlined his new Climate Action Plan in a speech today at Georgetown. But the president's actions to address climate change are hindered by Congressional resistance. Image: Whitehouse.gov

One of the president’s most important reforms is the announcement that he will issue a presidential memorandum to the EPA to develop carbon standards for power plants. Carbon emissions from these sources, unlike other harmful chemicals, have until this point gone unregulated by the federal government.

“Today about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants,” said the president, speaking at Georgetown. “Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollutions those plants can dump into the air. None.”

“We’ve got to fix that,” he said.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan establishes a goal of doubling the amount of energy derived from renewable sources by 2020. The plan would also establish efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.

The most substantive portion of the plan related to transportation was the announcement that the president wants to expand new fuel efficiency standards for trucks and heavy vehicles beyond 2018. Those standards, the White House says, are projected to save about 270 million metric tons of carbon and 530 million barrels of oil.

The plan also calls for the elimination of “fossil fuel subsidies” in 2014, which would require Congressional cooperation. Research by the International Energy Agency has shown that eliminating those subsidies alone would reduce carbon emissions 10 percent by 2050, according to the Climate Action Plan.

In his speech, President Obama also made reference to the Keystone Pipeline, saying the State Department has been instructed not to approve the project if government analyses determine it would increase carbon emissions.

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, a policy analyst with the Sierra Club, says the Climate Action Plan is mostly a collection of policy fixes the president can enact without Congressional support — such as new emissions standards — which might explain why transportation got short shrift.

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Obama’s Clean Energy Policy Elevates Efficient Cars Over Efficient Modes

It has a nice ring to it: using oil and gas revenue to shift transportation off oil and gas dependence. President Obama announced a plan to do just that on Friday — but the details of his plan are disappointing if you want to see the conversation on clean transportation go beyond cars.

Hey, it's OK -- they're all electric cars. Photo: A Marked Man

The Energy Security Trust would be funded with $2 billion in oil and gas revenues, in what the Washington Post called a “jujitsu” move – using oil and gas money to hasten the elimination of oil and gas as a transportation fuel.

This handy infographic from the Energy Department about what the money will fund shows just how narrowly defined the trust is. Light fuel tanks for natural gas, advanced vehicle batteries, cleaner biofuels, hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But as David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment’s Climate Program notes, “it has the distinct sound — to use a Zen Buddhist metaphor — of one hand clapping.”

“Certainly, electric vehicles and advanced biofuels are a key tool in drastically reducing the 70 percent of total U.S. oil consumption devoted to transportation,” Burwell said. “However, it misses at least two additional key elements of any oil-back-out scheme — (1) more trip choices and (2) reducing the need to travel.”

Obama has shown an impressive resolve to reduce vehicle emissions but not much desire to reduce vehicle trips. While his transportation budgets have enabled some progress on rail and transit, and his infrastructure initiatives focus on maintenance instead of road expansion, his signature program – the increase in CAFE standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 – would do nothing to reduce traffic, create more transportation choices, or encourage walkable development.

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Obama Proposes a “Fix-It-First” Program For Roads

From the "enhanced" State of the Union, whitehouse.gov

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama launched a “Fix-It-First” program to repair aging infrastructure and put people to work.

The president even took an indirect jab at officials who would rather build new than fix existing infrastructure, saying, “I know you want these job-creating projects in your district; I’ve seen all those ribbon-cuttings.”

So, tonight, I propose a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.

Obama has proposed infrastructure investment many times before, and always with a heavy tilt toward repair and maintenance, but never such an explicit mandate to “fix it first.” By keeping existing transportation infrastructure in good condition, officials can save the public from the expense of unnecessary road expansion projects.

However, he did give a nod to some new infrastructure he’d like to see: notably, high-speed rail.

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Obama Becomes First Prez to Walk Down a Bike Lane on Inauguration Day

The networks were busy tripping over themselves trying to point out all the “firsts” during yesterday’s inauguration ceremonies. But when Barack and Michelle Obama stepped out of the presidential motorcade to greet well wishers on Pennsylvania Avenue, they missed a huge one: Obama is now the first U.S. president to walk down a bike lane during his inauguration.

The center-median, two-way bicycle lane down Pennsylvania was implemented by DDOT back in summer 2010, so this is the first inauguration to feature the new look. Check out this clip from ABC News that shows the president stepping out of his limo and almost right on top of a bike stencil…

We’ve done some Streetfilms featuring some great bicycling from the capital.  Check out this Streetfilm on DC’s Capital BikeShare and this one from the 2011 National Bike Summit, which features many scenes of the Pennsylvania Ave bike lane in action.

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Obama Takes Another Swing at $50 Billion in Infrastructure Spending

President Obama is pressing for infrastructure investment again as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations. The president kicked off talks calling for an end to the debt ceiling, the extension of middle-class tax cuts, and $50 billion in infrastructure spending — a proposal that first arose last year as part of his ultimately unsuccessful American Jobs Act.

President Obama making his pitch for a $50 billion infrastructure spending package in 2011. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The Wall Street Journal called the President’s proposals “a particularly expansive version of the White House’s wish list” and “a potential starting point for negotiations.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was predictably opposed to the spending package, but the White House has held firm so far. National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling defended the seriousness of the proposal on a political talk show, Bloomberg News reports. “Those type of measures need to be part of” a deal, he said.

The Christian Science Monitor posits that the stimulus spending is likely meant to counteract whatever economy-depressing effects might result from the most contentious portion of the deal: the President’s plans to let Bush-era tax breaks expire for those making more than $250,000 annually.

It’s not clear how the funding in the President’s proposal would be divvied up, but when Obama last proposed a $50 billion infrastructure package, it included $9 billion for transit and $4 billion for high-speed rail, as well as funding for the TIGER program. More than half would have gone to roads.

Then as now, it was difficult to tell whether the road funding would fuel sprawl. While the White House said the funding would have gone to existing infrastructure that receives a “D” grade for disrepair from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Obama touted the proposal by visiting the site of a road-widening mega-project, Cincinnati’s Brent Spence Bridge.

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What Has President Obama Done to Improve American Transportation Policy?

With the election just days away, it’s a good time to reflect on what the Obama administration has done with transportation policy – and what a Romney administration might have in store. Streetsblog does not endorse candidates. This is an overview of their respective records and a look back at what we know of these two men. We’ll start with President Obama in this post and move on to Mitt Romney in the next one.

High-speed rail could have been President Obama's signature achievement. Photo courtesy of Obama for America.

Perhaps the best thing President Obama did for transportation policy was to nominate Ray LaHood as U.S. DOT secretary. Sure, LaHood reportedly wanted to be Secretary of Agriculture, not transportation. And yes, Obama’s main motive for nominating the moderate Republican congressman was to make friends across the aisle, a goal that for the most part went woefully unmet. Nonetheless, LaHood has proven to be a genuine reformer.

We knew LaHood was a keeper when he stood on a tabletop and declared that bicycles were on an “equal footing” with cars, announcing “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

The administration’s creation of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities has created valuable new links between federal transportation, housing, and environmental policies, demonstrating how government can eliminate barriers between agencies. It’s a model that some state transportation agencies have begun to take note of, as they approach local governments to craft land use and transportation decisions that make sense in tandem.

Even the Republican House of Representatives’ ire toward the Partnership can’t destroy the essential piece of it: that agencies are breaking down siloes and communicating more effectively with each other. The smart growth ethic that infuses the Partnership has permeated the three agencies involved – and many more.

Another signature achievement of this administration has been the TIGER program. TIGER has awarded more than $3 billion to more than 200 transportation projects based on their ability to meet strategic objectives, bucking longstanding policies (which continue in the current transportation bill) that fund transportation based on formulas and a singular focus on making sure every state gets their piece of the pie. While TIGER has some geographic criteria and a set-aside for rural areas, it has rewarded cities, regions, and towns that are innovating, and the program has prioritized bike/ped infrastructure, streetcars, freight rail, maintenance of existing roads, and other measures that advance sustainable transportation and smart growth. And by the way, that rural set-aside isn’t a bad thing: It’s helped jump-start transit access in a lot of small towns and tribal areas.

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Not a Word About Transit in Obama Jobs Plan

President Obama released a blueprint for his second term yesterday, a 20-page booklet focused on job creation [PDF]. Let’s be clear: This came from his campaign machine, not the White House.

In the booklet, called “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan For Jobs and Middle-Class Security,” Obama touts his success at keeping the American auto industry alive through government life support, saying the bailout brought back the nearly-extinct manufacturing sector in the United States.

He also commits to drilling in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, it’s part of Obama’s “all of the above” strategy that includes renewable energy sources, but it’s also got a lot of oil and gas, not to mention “clean” coal.

While about 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption is used for transportation, there’s not much in the document about investing in smarter, more efficient ways to get around.

The President mentions the doubling of fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025, but that’s all he has to say about how to reduce fuel consumption. It would be refreshing to see a mention of transit and active transportation, freight rail, or even his apparently abandoned signature initiative around high-speed passenger rail. Reducing the appetite for drilling in the Arctic could be a more inspiring rallying cry than this surrender to our oil overlords.

At the end of the section on energy, in boldface, Obama says, “And by growing American energy, we can keep our young men and women working here at home, not fighting wars on foreign soil.” If he’d replaced — or at least supplemented – ”growing American energy” with “building American transit,” he could have made a more convincing and coherent argument.

Later in the document, in a section on deficit reduction, Obama proposes to “commit half of the money saved from responsibly ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to reducing the deficit and the other half to putting Americans back to work rebuilding roads, bridges, runways, and schools here in the United States.” Still no mention of “transit” amidst the roads and bridges. No hint that we can fund transportation projects that use space and energy more efficiently, so that perhaps we can avoid the next war over oil.

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What Went Unsaid at Last Night’s Debate

If you want to hear the President say "transit" on the national stage, you have to put the words in his mouth. Image: AP

At last night’s presidential debate in Nassau County, the best opening for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to talk about transportation policy came when undecided voter Phillip Tricolla asked the following question of the President:

QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?

Let’s imagine the contours of the straightforward, leveling-with-America response that never came:

OBAMA: Yes, I do agree with Secretary Chu that it is not the job of the Energy Department to lower gas prices, any more than it’s the job of the Commerce Department to lower the price of tin or cotton.

But there’s a lot we can do to become more resilient in the face of oil price shocks. We can give people real transportation choices — invest more in transit, and in making our streets safer – so you aren’t forced to burn a gallon of gas every time you need to pick up some groceries.

My administration has started us down a smarter path with the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Department of Transportation’s TIGER program. These programs are laying the groundwork for a 21st Century transportation system that makes our communities more productive and efficient while reducing our addiction to oil. If we make these investments, not only will we free ourselves from constantly worrying about prices at the pump, we’ll also stave off the disaster of climate change and prevent the kind of droughts and other extreme weather events that are battering America.

Feel free to add your own embellishments in the comments.

Maybe in an electoral system where the most valuable votes aren’t highly concentrated in the suburbs of swing states, you would see at least some part of that answer aired in a national debate. But here’s what the candidates actually said — apart from a few references to efficiency and the global oil market from Obama, it was basically a contest to see who could convince America that he would open up more land for fossil fuel extraction:

OBAMA: The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy. So here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years.

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