Others issues have demanded more immediate attention, but President Obama signaled during an interview with a small group of columnists on Friday that he wants Congress to take a new road on transportation policy. Obama said that when legislators reauthorize federal highway and transit programs later this year, he intends to seek "some long-term reforms in how transportation dollars flow."
One change the president said he wants is to require more regional coordination, with the goal of reducing energy use. "I think right now we don't do a lot of effective planning at the regional level when it comes to transportation," Obama said on Air Force One, en route to his three-day visit to Chicago last weekend. "That's hugely inefficient. Not only does it probably consume more money in terms of getting projects done, but it also ends up creating traffic patterns... that are really hugely wasteful when it comes to energy use."
Instead, Obama said, "If we can start building in more incentives for more effective planning at the local level, that's not just good transportation policy, it's good energy policy. So we'll be working with the transportation committees to see if we can move in that direction."
Obama also reaffirmed support for his campaign proposal to establish a federal "infrastructure bank." During the campaign, he described the bank as an "independent entity [that] will be directed to invest in our nation's most challenging transportation infrastructure needs." He proposed to fund the infrastructure bank with a mixture of public funds ($60 billion over 10 years) and private investment.
During the interview, Obama said, "The idea of an infrastructure bank I think makes sense -- the idea that we get engineers and not just elected officials involved in thinking about and planning how we're spending these dollars.... I think there should be some way for us to just think about how we can rationalize the process to get the most bang for the buck, because the needs are massive and we can't do everything."
The sheer size of the infrastructure challenge, he maintained, demanded a process that reduced political influence over the allocation of limited federal transportation dollars. "If it's estimated that just on infrastructure alone it would cost a couple trillion dollars to get our roads, bridges, sewer systems, et cetera, up to snuff, and we know we're not going to have [all] that money, then it would be nice if we said, 'Here are the 10 most important projects and let's do those first,' instead of maybe doing the 10 least important projects but the ones that have the most political pull."
But Obama acknowledged he expected heavy congressional resistance to the infrastructure bank idea, not on ideological but rather institutional grounds. "There's probably going to be some resistance that doesn't fall along partisan lines, but rather has to do with legislators being understandably protective about their ability to influence these decisions," he said. That may turn out to be an understatement.