Freeway-Friendly Administration?

What the Obama Presidency May Mean for Transportation

By Victor Lindenheim

Executive Director, 

Golden State Gateway Coalition

Very little was said by either presidential candidate during the campaign regarding transportation policy that was picked up by the mainstream media. A review and analysis of policy positions articulated on candidate Barack Obama’s website, statements made in interviews, commentary in transportation-oriented trade publications and discussions with transportation advocacy colleagues offer some insights to where the nation may be headed in our efforts to address transportation challenges under an Obama-Biden administration.

If you have access to the Internet, television, radio, newspapers or magazines, you’ve probably already read or heard about the historic nature of our recent presidential election. First African-American president. Largest electoral college margin of victory for Democrats since 1964. Sixty-four percent of all eligible voters actually cast a ballot, the highest turnout in generations. 

Polished rhetorical skills, an aura of cool and competence under fire, and a promise of change, hope and bipartisan problem-solving have certainly made an impression on American voters. Combine these attributes with a well-funded, well-run campaign and we have just seen a movie worthy of Oscar buzz. Joe the Plumber is out and Joe the Vice President is in. Tina Fey goes back to her day job at “30 Rock.”

So now we leave the movie theater and find ourselves in the hard light of day. We see the reality of a global economy in shambles, American combat troops engaged and at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan, and energy costs escalating while availability declines. We are seeing a broken healthcare system; facing massive future Social Security, Medicare and pension funding shortfalls; and dealing with homeland security challenges both known and unknown. We are playing catch-up with China and India in producing enough technologically savvy college graduates to fill tomorrow’s jobs. And our national debt has hit a new milestone: $10.58 trillion. 

I still remain a realistic optimist on transportation. 

What Is The New Administration Saying? Will They Walk The Talk?

Cutting to the chase, the new administration’s priorities will likely include transportation to the extent that transportation fits with the new administration’s priorities: the economy, national security and energy independence. 

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo is quoted as saying: “We campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.” Under the category of “Additional Policy Issues” posted on the Obama-Biden campaign website, one finds a bold heading that precedes three pages of reassuring poetry: “Barack Obama and Joe Biden: Strengthening America’s Transportation Infrastructure.”

Fundamentally, the program consists of three objectives:

1. Revitalize transportation infrastructure.  As president, we are told he will make strengthening our transportation systems, including roads and bridges, a top priority. This campaign promise recognizes “we must upgrade our infrastructure to meet the demands of a growing population, a changing economy, and our short- and long-term energy challenges.” 

The campaign website statements recognize the role national transportation infrastructure — highways, bridges, roads, ports and train systems — plays in bolstering homeland security and emergency preparedness. There are references to reforming the transportation funding process and a proposal to create a new National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank. The bank would be capitalized at $60 billion over 10 years, and is intended to leverage other public and private sector infrastructure investments.

Federal financial support for Amtrak is cited, with a call for improvements in accountability by the passenger rail operator. Obama and Biden also support “development of high-speed rail networks across the country.” 

2. Improve public transportation and transportation planning. In addition to lauding the travel time efficiencies of public transportation, benefits to air quality, public health and greenhouse gas emissions reduction are cited. Obama and Biden will also reform the tax code to equalize benefits for those who take public transit or rideshare. As president, Barack Obama “will require governors and local leaders in our metropolitan areas to make energy conservation a required part of planning for the expenditure of federal transportation funds.”

3. Safeguard transportation from terrorism. The campaign asserts that “Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security will develop a meaningful critical infrastructure protection plan across the nation and will work with the private sector to ensure that all high-risk targets are prepared for disasters, both natural and man-made.”

Cause for Optimism?

Does that mean we’re gonna be stuck in traffic for a long time to come? Not necessarily. At least from a Californian’s perspective, I’m optimistic about transportation improvements, particularly in Southern California. Why? Because it is a front-of-mind local issue for everyone, every day. It looms as constant in our lives as a cup of coffee — make that a latte grande — in the morning. 

If you have to leave your home or workplace to go somewhere, you have to think about transportation. If you have goods or services to receive or deliver, you need transportation. When Antonio Villaraigosa, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barbara Boxer need to be somewhere in Southern California, they need to use the same roads we do… and we would all like to get there sooner rather than later. And, it would be nice if we could use less energy and cleaner fuels to get there. 

If the cost of transportation improvements is the main problem, money is the main solution. The debate isn’t focused on whether we need to improve transportation systems. The debate is about how to set the right priorities, reduce costs, improve the speed of project delivery, and, most important, how to pay for it. 

Transportation policy wonks have developed a whole new cache of concepts and a new vocabulary to supplement and soften traditional funding terms like taxes, tolls and fees. We’ll hear more about congestion pricing, public private partnerships, design-build, trust funds, and demonstration projects. These terms all boil down to ways to pay for it. I believe we will eventually get what we need, because if we truly need and want it bad enough, we will pay for it. 

So Where is the Money?

The U.S. government is poised to issue as much as $2 trillion in new bonds, bills and notes in fiscal 2009. Some of that money will wind up funding California transportation projects as part of the federal economic stimulus package. Also, the 2004 SAFETEA-LU (national surface transportation funding authorization bill) is up for congressional renewal in 2009. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman, California’s Sen. Barbara Boxer, has already held field briefings in California on the subject (see MAP 21 story on page 8). And there are other non-traditional funding sources that can be secured with a little creativity and a lot of persistence.  

Closer to home, an extraordinary amount of thought and money has been committed to the pursuit of transportation solutions. The work of Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission continues. Proposition 42 (state gasoline tax revenues) are at risk, but planned and funded state transportation programs and projects are still on the books. With the passage of Measure R, adding a half-cent to the sales tax in Los Angeles County, Metro could see an infusion of as much as $40 billion for planned transportation projects over 30 years. From these funds, $410 million has been allotted for I-5 improvements in north Los Angeles County, albeit the timing of the allotment is vague.    


The scale, impact and costs of transportation systems necessitate policy development, planning and funding considerations at the federal level. Regional, state and local participation, input and coordination are essential to project planning, prioritization, funding and delivery. And process changes will be needed to move forward at a faster pace.

Initially, the federal role in transportation is not likely to change radically. For now, as the Obama-Biden administration-to-be puts together its team, the action in transportation matters will continue to be in Congress. As the new Administration puts together its budget and addresses its priorities — the economy, national security, energy, and the global environment — linkage with transportation policy, programs and project needs will become apparent.

Good luck, Mr. President. We wish you success.