Mass Transit and the Stimulus

National media show mixed feelings, presenting an opportunity for local and regional follow-ups

As journalists and members of Congress continued to sift through the nearly 1000-page stimulus package last Tuesday night, President Obama addressed the nation on the topics of employment, credit, housing, and energy. He promised that his recovery plan would save or create 3.5 million jobs, many of them in green-collar industries.

“More than 90 percent of these jobs will be in the private sector,” he said. “Jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges, constructing wind turbines and solar panels, laying broadband and expanding mass transit.”

Approximately five percent, or $46.1 billion, of the total stimulus funding is being allocated over the next decade to transportation. Breakdowns of the package are still in the preliminary stages, but Transportation for America—a diverse coalition of elected officials, transportation, and development groups—estimates $27.5 billion is allocated for the Surface Transportation Program, which includes constructing and maintaining highways and roads. Approximately $8.4 billion is designated for public transportation, and $9.3 billion for intercity and high-speed passenger rail. An additional $825 million is going toward projects that will make roads safer for walking and biking.

Clearly, the stimulus is a big boost for rail and mass transit, which have been woefully underfunded for years. But is it enough money to build the kind of transportation infrastructure that would protect Americans from another spike in oil prices?

Various projects are vying for a slice of the stimulus money, from the construction of a high-speed California rail line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, costing $45 billion (obviously, the stimulus won’t cover it all), to the improvement to Chicago’s congested freight rail network, costing $2.5 billion. The upshot is that local and regional reporters will bear the responsibility for monitoring how and where the money is spent. Up to now, and with nothing to go on but the budget itself, national news reporters have been torn between optimism and pessimism about how much can be accomplished.

Some are comparing the $46.1 billion stimulus transportation budget to Obama’s campaign transportation plan, which included plans for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that would, among other things, spend $60 billion over ten years to overhaul the country’s infrastructure. As early as last May, Obama pledged to make rail a major part of his presidential agenda. At a campaign stop in Indiana, he told an Amtrak employee, “The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service.”

Some reporters covering energy and transportation think the stimulus is a large stride toward achieving those early promises. Headlines like “Obama plots huge railroad expansion” in Politico on February 17, “Stimulus gives life to speedy rail plans” in the Florida Times Union on February 27, and “Stimulus puts high-speed rail on the fast track,” on National Public Radio on February 24 represent just a few of the more sanguine articles to appear after Obama signed the stimulus bill.

Other reporters, taking a less optimistic angle, compared the $46.1 billion to the Department of Transportation’s 2009 fiscal year budget request of $68 billion, arguing that the numbers do not seem to stack up in mass transit’s favor.

The Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish was one of the first to cast a skeptical eye on the stimulus, publishing an article on January 29 about mass transit supporters’ frustration with the transportation budget. Paraphrasing policy analysts, Kranish wrote, “Obama initially left the impression that it would have such a massive component of urban transit and high-speed rail that it would lead to a ‘generational change’ in transportation comparable to that of the interstate system of the 1950s.”

“It may be the longest train delay in history,” wrote Michael Cooper for The New York Times on February 19. “[$8 billion] will not be enough to pay for a single bullet train, transportation experts say. And by the time [it] gets divided among the 11 regions across the country that the government has designated as high-speed rail corridors… it is unlikely to do much beyond paying for long-delayed improvements to passenger lines.”

In the article, Cooper compared the United States’s rail system to those in Europe and Asia: “To some longtime proponents of high-speed rail who have watched with envy as other countries built ever-faster trains, failing to build a world-class high-speed train now would represent a tremendous missed opportunity to lure drivers off choked roads and fliers away from long delays at airports.”

No matter the amount, any money toward mass transit is undeniably a smart, forward-looking plan. It may be years until alternative-energy cars are widely available, and increasing mass transit is a tried and true way to increase fuel efficiency. Furthermore, this summer, in the midst of record-high gas prices, Americans showed that they are willing to use alternative forms of transportation. In June, The New York Times reported that Amtrak was transporting record numbers of passengers (indeed, it could not keep up with demand) around the nation.

The Washington Post reported in August that D.C.’s Metro ridership during the 2007-2008 fiscal year reached 215.3 million trips, up 7.4 million from the year before. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority announced that, in August, drivers took a million fewer trips on state highways compared to the same month in 2007, a decline of 6.75 percent, and that that the number of bus, subway, and train passengers showed a concomitant increase of 6.9 percent.

Given the demonstrated efficiency of mass transit systems, Obama deserves credit for at least getting the $8 billion earmarked for high-speed rail projects into the stimulus package. It was a last-minute addition. “I put it in there for the president,” chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Politico. “The president wanted to have a signature issue in the bill, his commitment for the future.”

Yet that $8 billion is a good example of the anxious quarreling that will continue to make this a challenging story for reporters. While the stimulus bill was still being debated in mid-February, The Washington Post many news outlets derided the $8 billion for high speed rail as “pork,” based on fears that a large portion of it would go to “a controversial proposal for a magnetic-levitation rail line between Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas, a project favored by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid.” Those fears were premature. Reid does indeed support the Anaheim-Las Vegas line, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is responsible for doling out the high-speed rail money, and nothing has been allotted yet.

Indeed, only time will tell what the federal, state, and municipal recipients of stimulus money will be able to accomplish, and keeping track of the money will be utterly important. Along that line, Michael Cooper’s article in The New York Times on February 14 bears mentioning. As stimulus dollars get “sprinkled through the 50 states…” he wrote, “The money will be welcome, but hardly enough to transform transportation.”

Of course, it is entirely possible that fixing “small needs,” such as repairing roads, bridges, and tracks, will have transformative consequences to the people who rely upon them for transit. Indeed, during the political wrangling over the stimulus package, Obama’s most significant transportation-related public appearance was with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. The location was an incomplete, 1.9-mile stretch of the Fairfax County Parkway. Both men said that finishing the project with stimulus funds would create jobs and bolster the economy by connecting residential areas to major business parks. “But so would many other highway projects,” the article noted. And so would many other mass transit projects.

Come what may, local and regional reporters especially will have excellent opportunities to analyze the merits of transportation projects as stimulus spending is “sprinkled throughout the 50 states.” First and foremost, those journalists must see if the projects actually do get underway, and if they do spur the economy and create jobs in their areas. But they must also ask if they serve the national interest as well, by advancing the kind of infrastructural transformation Obama has promised—one that is so badly needed.

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Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.