Top policy advisers to Barack Obama and John McCain differed on key transportation issues at a forum in Washington this morning, but they agreed, in the words of McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, when it comes to transportation, “the ratio of importance to discussion on the campaign trail is high.”
Mortimer Downey, Obama’s senior transportation adviser and Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of transportation, emphasized Obama’s detailed transportation plan, which I blogged about here. “I can’t recall a candidate who’s put together such a full-fledged transportation plan,” he said. Among the infrastructure problems the next president will tackle will be to “have an air traffic control system that works.”
Downey identified three “vehicles” through which Obama would improve transportation: First, a short-term boost in spending to create jobs and provide economic stimulus. Second, a ten-year, $60 billion “National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank.” Third, a federal highway spending bill (due next year) with fewer earmarks and a systemic approach.
Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, spoke of McCain’s agenda (or lack thereof) in two categories: process and the federal role. On process, he noted McCain’s opposition to all earmarks and his support for economic review, return-on-investment analysis of transportation projects, and “performance and accountability measures.” Holtz-Eakin emphasized the need to identify properly the federal role in transportation planning and spending in relation to local and state agencies and “the important role of the private sector.”
As for Obama’s National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, Holtz-Eakin said “it isn’t something [McCain] supports . . . very reminiscent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” Downey rejoined that the bank would “build on things that have already been done in the DOT.” When pressed by moderator Ron Brownstein, Downey admitted that earmarks would “be a really tough diet to get off of.”
When asked how they would pay for new transportation investment, both candidates’ representatives agreed that the gas tax would not be raised and that new money would have to be found in cap-and-trade revenues (which Holtz-Eakin said was basically just a different kind of gas tax) and other sources — but they were not at all specific. Holtz-Eakin said that aviation fuels would be included in a cap-and-trade scheme, which may contradict what the McCain campaign told AOPA.
On aviation issues specifically, Downey said that passing FAA reauthorization (just one of several pressing transportation bills to be taken up in 2009) was urgent, and Holtz-Eakin agreed. Downey said he was worried about air traffic control modernization and that he wanted all stakeholders and parties to sit down together and work out an agreement. [But doesn’t the standoff of recent years reflect that the sitting down approach hasn’t worked? –ed.] Holtz-Eakin added that the debate over FAA reauthorization represents “a conflict between the economics and politics of aviation,” in which economics support user fees for everything but politicians shy away from such a pricing mechanism. And what does McCain think about how to fund air traffic control? “He’s taken no position,” said Holtz-Eakin. [Some maverick. –ed.]
The forum was organized by the National Journal Group and sponsored by the National Resources Defense Council and the American Public Transportation Association. The other panelists, all of whom were good and whose comments I might recap later, included Reagan transportation secretary James Burnley; Janey Kavinoky, transportation director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and Michael Replogle transportation director for the Environmental Defense Fund.