Mass Transit in the Stimulus: Why the Fight’s Not Over

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Since the House Democrats released a stimulus bill that devoted only about 5% of its $825 billion price tag to fixing the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure, we’ve been looking at whether mass transit in particular could ultimately claim a bigger piece of the pie.

Leaving aside President Obama’s initial prediction that his economic recovery plan would be the “largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” expanding mass transit is a just-plain-good idea. It creates jobs, and it helps wean the nation off a decades-long obsession with emissions-generating car travel.

So now that the House has added $3 billion in mass transit money to its stimulus bill — bringing the total investment up to the level envisioned by transportation committee chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) — we’re back on the right path, right?

Well, not completely. I talked to the two Democrats who led the charge to restore the $3 billion, Reps. Jerrold Nadler (NY) and Pete DeFazio (OR), and they weren’t celebrating yet.“It’s an improvement,” DeFazio said of the extra transit cash, “but it comes nowhere near the demonstrated need and capability to invest in the system.”

Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers released an infrastructure report card this week that gave U.S. roads a D-minus and transit systems a D grade, predicting that $2.2 trillion could be spent on mending the national infrastructure alone. (The House bill’s overall cost is $819 billion for everything, including $42 billion for roads and rail.)

“We could productively use billions more in transit” cash, DeFazio added. “This one year [of stimulus spending] puts us about on target for a 20-year plan to rebuild the system, let alone looking towards a 21st century infrastructure.”

Nadler painted a similar picture. Asked if the successful House vote is enough to convince the Obama administration that mass transit needs more attention in the final version of the stimulus, he said only, “I don’t know … The infrastructure piece of the bill should have been bigger,” he noted.

Whether White House economic adviser Larry Summers has decisively convinced Obama that state transportation departments lack “shovel-ready” projects remains to be seen. But other hurdles to efficient transit expansion remain.

In some cases, the stimulus’ reliance on existing transportation funding formulas — a move made to fulfill Obama’s promise of an earmark-free stimulus — could inadvertently prove counter-productive. California, struggling with a huge state budget deficit, is preparing to use most of its share on shoring up existing train cars and tracks, rather than starting on any ambitious and needed new projects.

Senators in states struggling with high unemployment are already pushing for transportation dollars to be reallocated to the areas that would benefit most from job creation.

In a sense, this heated debate over mass transit’s economic benefits is all a preview for the long-term, $300 billion-plus transportation reauthorization bill that is set for debate later this year — and is bound to include earmarks to build new railways and roads.

Nadler told me that the apportioning of priorities in the stimulus should not be taken as a sign that mass transit would get slim pickings in the reauthorization. “Those are much more fundamental issues [in the upcoming transportation bill] than we’re dealing with here,” he said. One hopes that he’s correct.

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