Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Building America, Building a Cabinet

In the month and a half since the Election, President Obama's cabinet has slowly been announced. For those of us into policy, it's an exciting time while the cabinet takes shape. Change is certainly in the air after 8 years in the hands of Republicans.

So far, most of the cabinet has been announced. Here's who's been chosen so far:
Chief of Staff: Rahm Emanuel
Sec. of State: Hillary Clinton
Sec. of Treasury: Timothy Geithner
Sec. of Defense: Robert Gates
Attorney General: Eric Holder Jr.
Sec. of Interior: Ken Salazar
Sec. of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack
Sec. of Commerce: Bill Richardson
Sec. of HHS: Tom Daschle
Sec. of HUD: Shaun Donovan
Sec. of Energy: Steven Chu
Sec. of Education: Arne Duncan
Sec. of Veterans Affairs: Eric Shinseki
Sec. of Homeland Security: Janet Napolitano
EPA Administrator: Lisa Jackson
Director of OMB: Peter Orszag
UN Ambassador: Susan Rice

Still left to be decided:
US Trade Rep.
Sec. of Labor
Sec. of Transportation

For an administration so intent on rebuilding America's infrastructure I find it slightly disingenuous to have Transportation left as one of the last two Departments without a Secretary. Granted, this is a transportation-type blog, and I know everyone has their own pet issue, but still I'm on pins and needles waiting to hear who will be leading DOT for the next 4 years.

Another thing that I find unnerving is that the Transportation Secretary is not going to be part of Obama's Environmental Team. The team, which Obama has picked to lead America into the new energy economy is certainly well-qualified, and Mr. Obama seems dedicated to working to stop climate change. According to his website,

"The future of our economy and national security is inextricably linked to one challenge: energy," President-elect Barack Obama said at a Chicago press conference today announcing the leaders who will guide his administration's policy on energy and environment. "The team that I have assembled here today is uniquely suited to meet the great challenges of this defining moment. They are leading experts and accomplished managers, and they are ready to reform government and help transform our economy so that our people are more prosperous, our nation is more secure, and our planet is protected."

The nominees include Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy; Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator; Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; and Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change.

President-elect Obama acknowledged that he is not the first leader to promise dramatic efforts on climate change and American energy independence--but "This time must be different," he said. "This is not a challenge for government alone - it is a challenge for all of us. The pursuit of a new energy economy requires a sustained, all-hands-on-deck effort because the foundation of our energy independence is right here, in America."

This is especially disturbing because of remarks that the President-Elect made last week, calling for "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." Now, Mr. Obama has not said that he's planning on building a new Interstate Highway System, but he has made reference to it. He has not made reference to transit since being elected--and we certainly need to invest in transit.

There's been a lot of talk of fixing it first--and that's a great policy. But there are projects other than highways waiting to be fixed. Transit systems across the country (and Amtrak, for that matter) have been underfunded for decades, and most have serious infrastructure issues. Here in Washington, Metro has billions in unfunded needs over the next decade, but I haven't heard of any stimulus headed our way.

But on the environment, Mr. Obama is correct about the all-hands-on-deck effort that is needed to solve the climate change puzzle. But, his plan is missing at least one key piece--alternative transportation. He's talked quite a lot about alternative fuels, but they will not solve the energy or climate problems alone.

According to Growing Cooler a report on the relationship between urban development and climate change, "Transportation accounts for a full third of CO2 emissions in the United States" (page 2). This report refers to the "Three-legged Stool" of Fuel Economy, Carbon Content of Fuel, and VMT. Any policy that fails to address all three legs of the stool will fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions far enough to reach targets. Because the Department of Energy projects that increases in VMT will outstrip improvements in fuel economy and carbon content, any emissions savings from those two legs will be outpaced by increases from the third leg, VMT.

It is readily apparent that we must take the first two steps (alternative fuels and fuel efficiency), but not everyone is sold on reducing VMT. Growing Cooler makes it clear that we must address how much we drive. And things are looking up. Just last week, the Washington Post reported that transit ridership across the country is way up, despite falling gas prices. But we're not doing enough. In every city in this country, transit is underfunded. In many places, even with high ridership, the economy is cutting into revenues. Atlanta's largest transit operator, MARTA, announced this week that major cuts are necessary, even in the face of an 11% increase in riders from last year.

President Obama must address this crisis, not only for transit operators, but from an urban design perspective. We must, as he promised in his platform, address livability and transit-oriented communities. His stimulus must go to cities, as advocated by Streetsblog, and it must go to transit agencies, as well as states and DOTs.

I worry about Mr. Obama's stimulus because roads are not the way to go. They should not be the future of American transportation policy, at least not the cornerstone. I'm not against funding for roads, and I understand that they will play a major role in American society for years to come. Fixing it first is certainly the best way to invest in roads, but Mr. Obama is calling for a major investment in our national infrastructure, on the scale of the Interstate System.

But we cannot afford to build another Interstate System. America is still recovering from all the unintended consequences of the 1956 bill that started all of this superhighway business, and without the suburbs that Interstates facilitated, we wouldn't be having this climate crisis or this energy crisis.

From Growing Cooler, page 2:

The growth in driving is due in large part to urban development, or what some refer to as the built environment. Americans drive so much because we have given ourselves little alternative. For 60 years, we have built homes ever farther from workplaces, located schools far from the neighborhoods they serve, and isolated other destinations--such as shopping--from work and home.

To spend money on highways will only encourage these wasteful trends--what James Howard Kunstler calls the "largest misallocation of resources in history"--to continue. Subsidizing drivers encourages them to make economic decisions that cause sprawl and crowd roadways.

The federal government has never been involved in land use, and it shouldn't be now. But policies such as the Interstate System have supported auto-centric suburban development. As long have subsidies and regulations that favor suburbia over urban areas, they will be indirectly involved in increasing America's dependence on foreign oil and carbon output. While the 1950s might have called for that type of subsidy, the 2010s certainly don't. It's time to refocus America's energies on truly making a dent in the climate question--and revitalizing cities at the same time. Transportation policy is one key component of that kind of change.

Without a sustainable transportation policy, not only will Mr. Obama's climate/energy policies have a major gap, they will have a fatal flaw. It is imperative that he include the transportation secretary, whoever that might be, on his energy team. It is even more imperative that we refocus our transportation resources, whether in the stimulus or in the reauthorization, on other modes. Automotive transportation has been overfunded for years, and a more balanced formula is needed.

Transportation is only one part of a comprehensive investment in stopping climate change, but it is an essential part. I hope Mr. Obama realizes how important is. I also hope he has the political willpower to make sure that change is manifested in transportation policy. We cannot afford 6 more decades of sprawl to result from a ill-thought plan to address the economic downturn. Transit can also help the economy, and the economy will be much better off when compact development, centered on transit, allows Americans to live with a reduced dependence on the automobile, foreign oil, and with cleaner air to breathe.

Soon, we will hear Mr. Obama's pick for Secretary of Transportation. Let's hope he or she is as dedicated to change as the President-elect's platform. And let's also hope that they're tough, because they will have one of the hardest jobs in Washington.


Danny said...

Brilliant! I'm crossing my fingers that Obama takes advantage of this opportunity!!

Dave Murphy said...

sadly, I think this is the worst cabinet assembly in my lifetime. Very disappointed.