Vol. 27, No. 1
In a gesture that looks more like a political testament than a realistic budget proposal, the Obama Administration unveiled a $4.1 trillion plan to fund the federal government in Fiscal Year 2017. The budget includes a hefty $98.1 billion for transportation— a 60% increase over the current annual spending level. To partly pay for the new spending, the Administration is calling for a $10 per barrel tax on oil that would translate roughly into a 25 cent/gallon increase in the price of gasoline at the pump.
The budget request was declared dead even before its arrival on Capitol Hill. “This isn’t even a budget so much as it is a progressive manual for growing the federal government,” said Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in a statement. Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) was equally dismissive. The President’s final budget, he declared, “isn’t rooted in reality…It is clearly about promoting his liberal legacy instead of securing America’s financial future,” Further underscoring the GOP leadership’s scorn and breaking with a long-standing tradition, the chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees jointly announced that they would not invite Obama’s budget director, Shawn Donovan, to testify before their panels on the Administration’s budget proposal.
A major portion of the Administration’s proposed new transportation spending, about $30 billion a year over the next decade, would go toward what the White House calls the “21st Century Clean Transportation Plan,” — a series of proposals to expand transit systems (31 rail, bus and streetcar systems in 18 states costing $3.5 billion), revive the failed high speed rail initiative, modernize freight systems and provide grants to regional authorities to implement innovative “clean” technologies and “green” transportation programs. The plan would be funded with the per- barrel tax on oil which is estimated to bring in $650 billion over a decade.
Privately, administration officials are reported to be realistic about the prospects of the budget proposal and its transportation element, becoming law in the Republican-controlled Congress. But White House officials take a long view. They see their budget submission as an opportunity to articulate a new vision that would provide “a roadmap to a future” as Obama wrote in his message to Congress. “We’re sort of laying the groundwork and putting out solutions for the long term,” said a senior administration official in a briefing for reporters. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx echoed in a statement accompanying the release of the transportation budget: “Meeting future challenges will require a long-term vision for the transportation sector… This budget brings us closer to that vision.”
But is more federal spending truly a praiseworthy and politically sound vision? Would Obama’s successor, be it a Democrat or a Republican, embrace the President’s plan that calls for some $550 billion worth of tax increases over the next ten years? Is a tax on oil a wise idea, given the oil industry’s precarious position? And is a huge increase in transportation spending justified after passage of a $305 billion surface transportation authorization just a few months ago?
Obama’s attempt to shape the future transportation/infrastructure agenda is based on an arrogant presumption that his goals and priorities –especially his grand vision of climate-friendly, low-carbon mobility with clean energy sources and vastly reduced reliance on fossil fuels–is a compelling legacy that should be embraced by his successor. This presumption would certainly not be upheld by a future Republican President. Nor would Obama’s vision necessarily survive in a future Democratic administration with Congress remaining in GOP hands.
Like most of Obama’s previous transportation budget proposals, the FY 2017 submission will pass into memory as a fiscally irresponsible, and mostly ignored, political manifesto.
C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation Newsbriefs, now in its 27th year of publication.