Build What When

Urbanists and transit fans can be histrionic. It’s true. And that’s coming through loud and clear from the urbanist blogosphere, which is currently very, very upset that Obama hasn’t led off every speech on stimulus with a rousing call to abandon our automobiles and connect every town with over 500 people to a high-speed maglev rail network.

Let me just say a few quick things about all of this.

First, during the campaign I learned that if one just relaxed and had confidence that there was a strategy in place, one was usually vindicated. Until Obama begins making repeated tactical missteps with actual policy consequences, I don’t intend to change my attitude on that score.

Second, an economic crisis is an opportunity, but it’s also a dangerous crisis. The Obama administration is going to be very serious about putting a great deal of resources into action very quickly. Given the shape of our current transportation infrastructure, a majority of ready-to-go projects are road-oriented. Happily, a majority of them also involve basic maintenance, and are therefore worthwhile in their own right. But this is not something we should be fighting. They’re thinking, what can we usefully spend money on this minute, which is exactly what they ought to be thinking.

Third, I suspect the Obama team is going to understand the value in an announcing a commitment to a sustained stimulus package. At present, we’re talking about at least $600 billion over the course of two years, in stimulus. Not all spending on new Obama policies, just stimulus. I think it’s safe to say that the initial round of projects will have the highest proportion of highway projects to transit and rail projects.

And finally, while stimulus is an excellent opportunity to kick-start green projects, I would rather have an Obama administration that devoted stimulus entirely to known quantities like road repairs and who changed the mundane, budgetary structures to favor things like rail, than someone who used stimulus to boost transit agencies but left the difficult institutional work undone.

When it comes time to choose between initiating massive new road projects and massive new rail and transit projects, I don’t have the least doubt that Obama will press hard for the latter.


  1. The AMT says:

    I agree with you virtually 100%. I think with all the talk of Change, many were expecting a wholesale shift before Barack even got to the District. What’s the line – “change comes in excruciatingly small increments to those who want it.” But that’s how it’s going to get done, because it’s the only sustainable way to do it. I hope to see the Obama Administration press things, but even with majorities on the Hill, it’s going to be a fight every step of the way.

  2. Daniel Nairn says:

    But there are other crises going on that get sidelined when the economy hits a down period: global warming, dependence on foreign oil, uncertain supply of oil, socio-economic disparities, etc.

    If the only goal is to put people to work as quickly as possible, a much more efficient strategy would be dig a massive hole and fill it back in again, over and over. At least the net result would be neutral. Can’t say the same for the lists of new roads waiting in the docket.

    I voted for Obama and I’d like to put my trust in his long-term plan, but I don’t see too much a track record to work with. I suppose my partisan loyalty has not solidified yet.

  3. As that famous Obama caption says, “Everyone chill the fuck out, I got this!”

    So maybe we should chill the fuck out for awhile. There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent.

  4. BeyondDC says:

    Agreed. Given the nature of the stimulus, there’s only so much Obama can do.

    The new TEA bill will be the real test. That’s where lasting change can be made.

  5. Daniel Nairn says:

    I’d be more willing to give some slack on the incremental timing, if I were at all convinced this prospective stimulus package were even heading in the right direction.

    I’d like to share the faith some of who have that Obama has some trick up his sleeve.

  6. BeyondDC says:

    Daniel, I think you’re expecting the wrong kind of movement from the wrong kind of document. This really has *nothing* to do with faith in Obama. It has to do with what’s possible in the given time frame.

    The stimulus package is not intended to change anything except the economy. To have an effect on the economy, it needs to provide immediate jobs. To provide immediate jobs, the stim package has to target projects that are already totally through the planning process and ready for construction. The federal planning process takes years. If we wait for new projects to go through it, it will be too late to make any difference to the current economic situation.

    Unfortunately, given the nature of transportation planning over the past decade, there are a lot of road projects ready to go and not very many transit projects. But that’s *not* Obama’s fault, nor is there *anything* he can do about it. Obama is not a wizard. He can’t travel magically back in time and change planning that happened last year. Thus, the stim package is necessarily full of road projects.

    Now, next year Congress will take up the issue of infrastructure spending over the next 6 years. *That* bill is where Obama and the transit camp have room to move. *That’s* where we should focus our attention, as urbanists. Getting all upset about the stim package is worse than a waste of time, it needlessly costs Obama political capital he will need when it comes time to write a bill that actually can move in the right direction.

  7. Daniel Nairn says:

    DCist, I just read the political landscape differently. I don’t agree that criticism of his stimulus package is costing any political capital at all. Nobody will confuse it with a push toward the right on transportation.

    Obama is a politician like any other, and he responds to what he hears his from his constituents. I would argue that *not* speaking up when we are disappointed (c’mon you know you are disappointed) will communicate that this is an issue with a considerable amount of leniency.

    (As the old wisdom goes, Republicans don’t listen to the urban citizens because they don’t have any of their votes. Democrats don’t listen to urban citizens because they know they have their votes.)

    I understand fiscal policy, but I do not see the transportation stimulus package being proposed as an absolute necessity. There are other ways to stimulate the economy that do less damage to our built environment.

    I agree that the ISTEA update is very important, but let’s be honest that we’re all at least a little disappointed with the stimulus package.