Rick Karr, Blueprint America correspondent
Whoever moves into the Oval Office come January will have to work with Congress on a new federal transportation bill. The new president will have to strike a balance between roads and rail when allocating those hundreds of billions of federal dollars. In the first segment of a four part Blueprint America radio series, a report on Barack Obama and John McCain’s sharply different positions on what kind of transportation the country needs.
The Obama camp says that both pieces of the transportation pie need to grow – but the emphasis is on rail. Federico Pena is former Secretary of Transportation – and Energy – and a spokesperson for the Obama campaign. Speaking from his office in Denver, he said a President Obama would break with recent history and push for new federal investment in mass-transit and high-speed rail.
“Years ago, even before we had a very high price of oil, there were those who opposed transit throughout the country because they argued for example that out here in the West people would not get out of their car and get in transit systems and ride light-rail or even heavy-rail. Well, those opponents were wrong.”
The McCain camp acknowledges that high gas prices have led people to use mass transit in record numbers. But the Republicans are skeptical that federal money should be spent on rail – specifically, whether Amtrak’s inTER-city lines make sense in most of the country.
“Passenger rail is not going to be the primary vehicle.”
That’s Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain’s senior economic advisor. He says the Arizona Senator would pursue a transportation policy that would keep the car at its center.
“We have to change the way we drive and not drive on gasoline, but drive on alternatives, whether they be hybrids … next generation of automobiles are likely to be.”
The McCain plan calls for tax incentives for private companies – to encourage research and development on electric cars and clean technology.
But neither candidate has made transportation policy a priority.
“One of the reasons that infrastructure might not be popular among the candidates now is because we expect our transportation systems to be there.”
Robert Paaswell is distinguished professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York. He believes that as the current financial crisis rolls on, the new president will realize that investment in transportation can actually lift the economy.
“Transportation creates economic activity and it is that investment in economic activity that would boom.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are talking about a stimulus bill that would spend heavily on infrastructure – including transportation. Former cabinet member Federico Pena says Obama supports the idea. Douglas Holtz-Eakin says McCain would look at it line-by-line to eliminate waste.