Elana Schor’s got the quotes from Representative Jim Oberstar (D-MN) that indicate that the reason rail got so little funding in the stimulus proposal is that they were cut to make room for more tax cuts:
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, reduced the water infrastructure program, the drinking water and the wastewater treatment facilities and sewer lines, reduced that from $14 billion to roughly $9 billion — was the tax cut initiative that had to be paid for in some way by keeping the entire package in the range of $850 billion.
Not good. I would also note that there are plenty of ways to do mass transit stimulus funding that have nothing to do with breaking new ground on projects and thus get around the “lag” concerns or some alleged lack of new projects. All around the country, after all, we have people paying fares to go ride on buses, commuter rail lines, light rail, and heavy rail systems. In many jurisdictions, those fares are currently rising even as service is cut back because state and local funding streams for operating costs are drying up amidst the recession. The federal government could make funds available to transit agencies—a certain amount per passenger carried in 2007—that can be used to finance fare cuts or service expansions. That’s the kind of stimulus that would be very fast acting since even though it might take some months for the money to start flowing, agencies could start planning to receive the funds right away. It would have some direct employment effect through the agencies, and would also in effect put extra money into the pockets of transit users. And since in most cities, transit is primarily used by the poor it would be a highly efficient stimulus. And also environmentally friendly.
I see no sign that this kind of thing has gotten serious consideration from the administration or from congress, which is odd considering that they claim to be searching far and wide for reasonably efficient uses of stimulus funds.