White House role in slashing stimulus bill transit funding questioned

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 - 05:42 AM

Who's responsible for allocations in the stimulus package? Who decided that roads would get $30 billion, transit would get $9 billion, and that the "smart grid" would get $11 billion? According to transit advocates who've talked with House transportation committee chair James Oberstar, D-Minn., it was Lawrence Summers, director of the White House's National Economic Council.

ShovelWatch is a joint project of the non-profit investigative journalism organization ProPublica, The Takeaway and WNYC Radio.

So far, Summers' hand has been largely hidden, with House leaders simply attributing input to "the Obama team." But as details of the stimulus bill have emerged, it's become clear that Summers' own skepticism about what can be spent when has shaped some of its smallest details.

Transit advocates say Oberstar — a supporter of transit himself — has been telling them he had a "shouting match" with Summers, who doubted whether transit money could be spent fast enough to stimulate the economy. And, as least so far, the Summers view is reflected in the House bill, H.R. 1.

According to Oberstar's spokesman James Berard, Oberstar met with Summers two weeks ago, on January 13, and "expressed his concern" about the level of transit funding in the bill. Oberstar wanted $12 billion, plus $5 billion for inter-city railroads.

When the House bill was unveiled last week, it had forty percent fewer funds: $9 billion for transit and another $1 billion for rail.

"There was discussion between Mr. Oberstar and Mr. Summers," Berard said. "I don't know the level of emotion involved."

But according to five people Mr. Oberstar spoke with about the meeting, the emotional dials were in the red. The individuals asked not to be identified because Oberstar is an ally in their efforts to increase federal transit funding and they didn't want to jeopardize the relationship. "A shouting match," is how one of them said Oberstar described it. "He left the impression it was not a friendly conversation," said another transit supporter.

On MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" Friday night, Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., added to the impression that Summers was behind the cut in transit. Speaking of President Barack Obama, DeFazio said, "I think he is ill-advised by Larry Summers. Larry Summers hates infrastructure and some of these other economists — they were part of creating the problem and now they are going to solve the problem. They don't like infrastructure." But DeFazio stopped short of saying orders were coming directly from Summers. "That's not clear," he told Maddow.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki wouldn't comment on Summers' specific role in the negotiations. But she did confirm "we worked with Congress and we made clear our priorities."

Those priorities have already proved confusing. In his inaugural address, the president continued to convey the impression that the stimulus is about "roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together." But the $825 billion bill contains just $77 billion for transportation and infrastructure, including highways, transit and water infrastructure. There's more that might be considered infrastructure — classrooms, for example, or the electric grid — but the bill largely framed as WPA-II also contains hundreds of billions of dollars for tax cuts and direct aid to states. There's $87 billion for Medicaid relief, for example, which governors have fought for but would be hard-pressed to describe as "infrastructure-building."

The transit allocation has proved irksome to environmentalists who thought they'd found a friend in President Obama. "Sixty percent of emissions come from transportation," said Caron Whittaker, of the group America Bikes, who like others hoping Mr. Obama would be transit-friendly, argues that supporting transit, biking and walking is more important than cutting auto emissions in the long run.

"What raised expectations was that this was going to be a transformative set of investments," added David Goldberg, communications director of Transportation for America, a coalition of housing and environmental groups advocating transportation reform. "When he said during the transition he would make investments that rivaled the interstate highway system, when [Mr. Obama's Chief of Staff] Rahm Emmanuel said we would transform the economy into a clean energy economy, when the bar was set at that level, a lot of people believed clean transportation investments would be at the top of the list."

Goldberg's group yesterday released a map, showing 38 communities that face transit cuts but will receive no aid under the stimulus bill.

The Obama administration does have its defenders. Mortimer Downey III, the Obama transition team member who led the review of the Department of Transportation (and who was a top Clinton administration DOT official), said it's premature to decide how transit-friendly the Obama administration will be.

"You have to be realistic about how fast and where money can be spent," said Downey, who no longer has a formal role in the Obama team. "Some of the things in the transportation and infrastructure proposal are great long-term proposals," but, Downey said, they can't get started quickly enough. He noted the Obama administration will release a budget this year, and there will be a new transportation appropriations bill. "I don't think you can reach an overall conclusion about how well transit is faring until we see all those things. Otherwise it would be a rush to judgment."

Still, there's unease. "Mort is right," said Deron Lovaas, the lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "but at the same time when you legislate on something, it sets a precedent on what comes next."

This article was reported as part of ShovelWatch, a joint project of the non-profit investigative journalism organization ProPublica, the Takeaway and WNYC. ShovelWatch will be tracking spending in the economic stimulus package.


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Comments [7]

Carolyn Mechling

Shame on the Dem's and the on the
President for passing this Bill.
And going against the wishes of most American's. You should all go, none is
doing what is right for the country
only what is right for their pockets.
This is one example why America is not
the great country it use to be.Greed &
no moral values.

Feb. 14 2009 07:29 AM


Feb. 12 2009 05:29 PM

Functioning and convenient transit system -> fewer miles driven in personal cars -> decreased auto sales -> fewer auto industry jobs.

Now, the correct response to this is of course that we can employ all those auto workers somewhere else, specifically in manufacturing buses and trains and laying track.

Jan. 29 2009 04:12 PM

Um..don't you mean Hank Paulson's buddies? Geithner has worked with investment bankers but always as a government outsider looking in. Paulson was one of the tribal leaders. Two very different mindsets.

Jan. 28 2009 01:43 AM

I ahve to agree this plan sells us short on the hopes and expections that many are looking for inthis New White House, it is more like a Dem spending spree, then a stimulus plan for long term jobs amd security

Jan. 27 2009 10:21 PM
lambert strether

Hey, Dan.

The only "welfare" I see right now is two trillion thrown at Tim Geithner's golfing buddies with no transparency and no accountability. So I'd say FDR and LBJ are looking pretty good right now.

Jan. 27 2009 08:54 PM

Can't we just admit, for better or worse, that this is a bill designed as much to return us to the FDR/Johnson welfare state as it is to stimulate the economy?

Jan. 27 2009 10:58 AM

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