Rep. Oberstar: In Stimulus, Mass Transit Got Nixed For Tax Cuts

highway.jpgYesterday, TPMDC highlighted a speech given by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) before the U.S. Conference of Mayors. During the speech, Oberstar explained that investments in mass transit were removed from the economic recovery plan kicking around Congress in order to make room for tax cuts:

[W]e set forth this $85-billion initiative from our committee. It’s been reduced in the final going. We expect that it’ll come out somewhere around $63 billion, but $30 billion for highways. The reason for the reduction in overall funding — we took money out of Amtrak and out of aviation; we took money out of the Corps of Engineers […] — was the tax cut initiative that had to be paid for in some way.

Infrastructure investment provides a far more effective stimulus than tax cuts, so this seems to be a step in the wrong direction. Furthermore, devoting almost half of the money appropriated for transportation initiatives to highways would be a troublesome development.

There is an undeniable need to repair “truly imperiled” roads and bridges, but widespread spending on highways is something that will come back to haunt us later. As Dean Baker wrote in the Guardian, “While not all highways are bad, highways that promote the pattern of sprawl that we have seen in many metropolitan areas over the last 30 years are bad”:

We should not be making it easier for people to live long distances from their jobs, so that they have lengthy commutes each day. This would directly counteract efforts in other areas to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions…[I]t doesn’t make sense to pay money to develop more fuel-efficient cars so that they can go further on each gallon of gas, and then go out spend tens of billions of dollars building highways that encourage people to drive more.

A much better way to spend stimulus dollars would be on light-rail, commuter rail, and other mass transportation projects. Also, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out, “there are plenty of ways to do mass transit stimulus funding that have nothing to do with breaking new ground on projects,” such as financing “fare cuts or service expansions.” Indeed, investing in transportation should not be code for simply building more roads to nowhere.