Obama’s Agenda for Cities: Enough Talk

In closing his speech
to a roundtable on urban and metropolitan issues, given yesterday at
the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Barack Obama quoted Chicago
architect Daniel Burnham, who famously urged men to "make no small
plans."

It’s a nice line for leaders with big goals, but it’s worth noting that Burnham wasn’t all talk.

alg_adolfo_carrion.jpgDoes Carrion’s (above) "listening tour" meet the Daniel Burnham standard? (Photo: Daily News)

He
orchestrated the planning and construction of the Columbian Exposition
in Chicago, essentially an entire city built within a city, in a mere
three years.

Obama’s use of the line, by contrast, comes as he prepares to send his head of the new Office of Urban Policy on a listening tour.

The
president’s slowness to act is understandable given the constraints he
faces: a weak economy, a soaring deficit, a mountain of policy crises
to tackle, and an obstinate Senate, among other things.

And he has used the opportunities available to him to push forward important policies.

Obama has done more for high-speed rail
investment in six months then his predecessor did in two full terms.
Both the stimulus bill and the Waxman-Markey energy bill contain some significant funding for investment in metropolitan economies and infrastructure.

And yet there is ample reason to be frustrated with the administration.

As nice as it has been to see the new bilions being directed at rail
and transit and cities generally, the amounts at issue are wholly
inadequate relative to America’s needs.

The transportation
funding bill which might have done significantly more to close the gap
will likely be delayed — at the administration’s insistence — for two years, despite the desire of a bipartisan group of bill backers to get reauthorization done this year.

The
president seems reluctant to address the inevitable financial question
— how to pay for new investment — at this time, with so many other
contentious topics on the table.

The "never waste a crisis" mentality
appears to have been retired; economic challenges haven’t been invoked
to justify deficit-funding of the bill, nor have they been used to sell
the inevitable source of additional transportation money — an increase
in gas taxes or highway user fees.

And while the
administration is wringing its hands over the fact that stimulus money
allocated to states has not been allocated to metropolitan areas in
appropriate proportions, it doesn’t seem too interested in doing
anything about the issue.

As Elana Schor reported
yesterday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is now urging states to
send more money to cities, a plea that’s easy enough to ignore.

If
the administration has made the political determination that real
transportation reform and investment isn’t possible at this time, then
I have no reason to challenge that assessment; I’m no political guru.

At
the same time, that acknowledgment ought to be accompanied by efforts
to do as much as possible with currently available tools. That means
using government tools to create the proper incentives for state and
local investment. Use the U.S. DOT’s discretionary tools to provide the
necessary carrots and sticks.

It also means laying the
institutional groundwork for later resolution of tricky transportation
funding issues. It is going to be very difficult to convince the
American people to pay more for transportation. Doing so is the work of
years.

The president seems unwilling, so far, to use his
bully pulpit to influence active legislation. Fine. Can he not take the
time in speeches such as yesterday’s, then, to bluntly state the
obvious? Higher gas taxes don’t argue for themselves. Someone
influential has to do it for them.

Reform doesn’t happen
magically. If the president feels that now is not the right time for an
overhaul of the transportation funding rules or of metropolitan policy
more broadly, then that’s his judgment. But we need to see the
groundwork being laid for later efforts.

Maybe the money
directed toward rail is a step in that direction, but the hardest
questions all center on long-term funding. Eventually that stone must
be rolled up the hill, and the longer we wait to get started, the
harder the going will be.

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