Americans desperately need jobs. The nation's sagging infrastructure badly needs repair and renewal. Why not put people to work fixing and building roads, bridges and transit systems? It all seemed a no-brainer.
But now comes the problem of money -- or lack of it. A deficit projected at $1.35 trillion has made substantial borrowing for infrastructure renewal a fading dream. Many state governments lack the wherewithal to provide local matches for an aggressive federal initiative. And raising the user fee (federal gas tax) required to finance such a vast enterprise seems politically improbable as long as unemployment hovers in double digits.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood delivered that somber message in a visit to the Twin Cities this week. He made clear President Obama's opposition to the nickel (or more) increase in the federal fuel tax needed to launch a significant transportation overhaul. "The president is just not going to be for that as long as people are hurting," LaHood said.
Standing beside him, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House transportation committee, acknowledged that his ambitious attempt to modernize the transport system is dead in the water. His bill has the support of 160 Democrats and 30 Republicans, but that's still 28 votes short of passage and, with no help from the president on the fuel tax, the Minnesota Democrat's hopes for a massive overhaul have dimmed considerably.
In his State of the Union speech, Obama did say he wanted to "put people to work today to build the infrastructure of tomorrow." And he did say "there's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains in the world."
But his $8 billion down payment on high-speed rail, also announced this week, is a relatively modest start and won't deliver the world-class systems of France, Germany, Japan or China. Trains between Chicago and the Twin Cities, for example, would top out at 110 miles per hour, about half the speed of fast trains in Europe and Asia. That's a metaphor, perhaps, for the lower expectations coming out of Washington; a modernized transportation system won't get the commitment that once seemed assured.
The president's plan to freeze discretionary spending for three years -- presumably including capital funds for transportation -- further dampens the outlook. His confusing rhetoric doesn't help either. On Wednesday night he told the nation to aim high. China and Germany aren't standing still on rebuilding infrastructure, he said. They're not "playing for second place." Unfortunately, the president is aiming lower than that on transportation. And he's violating his own applause line by "putting America's future on hold." Indeed, it's hard to imagine a true recovery without a substantial update to infrastructure. The United States is simply not efficient enough at moving goods and people to provide the edge it needs in world markets.
So what's a metro region to do? A smaller-than-expected federal pie doesn't match the pent-up demand in the Twin Cities for better roads and, especially, for an expanded transit system. Competition for federal dollars will be as fierce as ever as scores of projects from across the nation jockey for scarce federal dollars. Light-rail and streetcar lines are particularly popular.
Minnesota must be more strategic than before. "Fix it first" is a sensible starting point. A collapsed bridge and a long backlog of road repairs shows why maintaining the infrastructure we already have should be the top priority. That includes finding the money to fully operate transit.
Second, the metro must begin to see the buildout of the Central, Southwest, Bottineau and other transit corridors as a single piece -- not a once-in-a-decade trickle. Metros with the most stable local matches will win the federal dollars.
Third, prioritize. Moving people around the metro region is probably more important than building high-speed rail to Chicago.
Finally, tie transportation to land-use policy and livability. To build transit corridors without the incentives to concentrate jobs and housing near stations is counterproductive. Doing more with less will require a smarter, more thoughtful approach.