Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dead Week/Disappointment

It's a busy time of the year for everyone, I suppose, and so the past few days have been light on blogging and blog reading for me. Next week is the last week of the semester at Maryland, meaning that my final classes are this week. When I was at Georgia Tech, we called the week prior to finals "Dead Week." It certainly will be dead for Track Twenty-Nine, although I'll try and get back to blogging more next week as my class obligations end.

But despite my lack of time this week, I want to express some frustration. I'm not the only one around to be doing so, either.

You see, on November 4, I stood in line in the cold and voted for change. While I waited with my neighbors and fellow disenfranchised citizens (in DC), I thought back to the first time I voted for Barack Obama, on a snowy day in March, during the Potomac Primary. It was cold then, too. But I felt that I was casting a ballot which would help to thaw America from the icy clutch of the Republicans. For 8 long years, they stood with the reigns of power, and created public policy in the transportation, energy, and urban policy areas which made me want to vomit.

So on November 4, I was out in the streets cheering when CNN called the election for Obama. It was raining, but we didn't care here in DC. Getting wet that cold November evening didn't matter. We had won! After 8 years of strife, victory was at hand. Change was in the air. In a matter of months, a new era would start in America--an era of growing environmental consciousness, of reinvestment in our cities, of policies for the people--instead of for corporate executives.

Now, I'm not so sure that I got what I voted for. To be certain, Mr. Obama has not yet taken office, and much is still unknown about his policies, but I am worried.

In a speech on Saturday, the President-Elect called for investment. But I did not hear a call for anything remotely like the Second System. Instead I heard a call that hearkens back to the Eisenhower Administration.
"We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in
our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in
the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and
we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to
invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.”

Granted, Obama did not actually call for investment in the federal highway system. But he did use it as an example. Where are his calls for high speed rail? Where are his examples of the UMTA transit program of the 1970s that gave us BART, Metro, and MARTA? The program that gave us LRT in San Diego, in Pittsburgh, in San Francisco?

In a world where highway building has been the status-quo for over 5 decades, the lack of mention of transit does not bode well. For the last 7 years, Mr. Bush has called for Americans to reduce their dependence on foreign oil in each of his States of the Union. Not once did he ask Americans to try transit--nor did he do much to increase the supply of transit. Do we face another 4 years of the same?

Mr. Obama says that if communities don't invest in roads and bridges, they'll lose federal dollars. I fear that if they don't invest in transit, they'll lose their communities. But where are Mr. Obama's pledges of money to fund transit projects that are in design?

According to today's Washington Post, Maryland and Virginia have new hopes for road projects cancelled by the recent downturn. Excuse me? What about the major cuts to MARC service proposed by MTA? Shouldn't we be hoping for a stimulus that would at least keep transit service at today's levels, especially in the face of vast increases in ridership?

Just yesterday, the Post ran a story about transit ridership across the nation--it's up, way up. In heavy rail, LA leads the pack with a 14.1% increase over last year. Baltimore's light rail leads with an increase of 19.6%. The Railrunner in Albuquerque leads with a huge increase of 35.8%. For the Post's editorial board, the evidence is clear and convincing. They're calling for investment in transit. The Post rightly points out, that any fast-acting stimulus penalizes transit because of the hoops we've created for those projects to jump through. And while Obama might be the likeliest candidate to change that situation, he has so far shown no inclination to fund a transit stimulus.

Even though VMT is dropping and transit ridership is increasing, Mr. Obama wants to give states money to widen highways, like I-66 and I-95, but doesn't see fit to give a few federal dollars to stop the elmination of already-crowded commuter trains running alongide these corridors.

Indeed, with all this talk of infrastructure spending to rival the New Deal, why haven't we heard about his pick for Secretary of Transportation? If we're really going to invest in our transportation infrastructure like Eisenhower did, why isn't Mary Peters' replacement already drawing up plans?

I'm still holding out hope for a Transportation Secretary like Jim Oberstar or Earl Blumenauer, but with Obama's talk of highway spending, I'm afraid we'll get someone more like Robert Moses.

I haven't yet given up hope for change. But I also haven't heard much since November 4 to suggest that change is really coming, at least to transportation policy. And in this time of high ridership and demand for government infrastructure investment, that would be a shame. This is the chance of a generation to change the way our cities are structured--we cannot afford to squander that opportunity just to build more highways. Not if we have any hope for redesigning cities to survive into the 21st century--a century guaranteed not to be the century of cheap oil.


Anonymous said...

First: Don't panic yet, it's barely been a month.

Second: If Obama isn't talking transit and community-building, than advocates need to speak up. You have a forum, you have the beginnings of expertise, most of all you have a (potential) network. You have links to the blogs of David Alpert (GGW), J.D. Malouf (BeyondDC) and Richard Layman, but do you know them? Those three alone are close at hand, and have a greater depth of experience and contacts than you (and far more than I). Why not contact them? Talk to them, discuss your concerns, get help/advice/suggestions on how to make your case--to the public and to whoever in power will give you/them a hearing and could actually get something done (or bend the ears of others who can).

Good luck and God bless.

copp3rred said...

If you want to have at least one good omen it is that Waxman replaced Dingell, the auto-industry's suction cup rep. Still I see your point, even if I suspect road building is an easy way to sell transit along with it.