Obama on Metro Policy

As I noted when talking about his competitiveness speech, Barack Obama just doesn't seem to be able to reach his true rhetorical heights when going into detail about policy. But he has pretty good policies, as evidenced again by a speech he gave earlier today in Miami on "metropolitan policy." Like Ezra Klein I think it's good to see him frame it in this terms, since we're at a point where the boundaries of our functional economic units -- metro areas -- have very little correspondence with formal government boundaries. Another good framing point:

To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth. And yet, Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated “urban” agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both.

This is a point that urban policy people have been trying to push into the mainstream for a while. The fact that Obama's saying this means, among other things, that his team is paying attention to the right people. But we have poor people who don't live in cities, and cities are facing issues besides poverty -- among other things, we have the question of how to make it affordable for non-rich people to live in nice urban areas. Other highlights:

This is putting enormous pressure on the Highway Trust Fund, which can no longer keep up with all the repairs that have to be made. Yet Senator McCain is actually proposing a gas tax gimmick that would take $3 billion a month out of the Highway Trust Fund and hand it over to the oil companies. Well, at a time when the Highway Trust Fund is beginning to run a deficit for the first time in history, I think that’s the last thing we can afford to do. [...]

But when it comes to rebuilding America’s essential but crumbling infrastructure, we need to do more, not less. Cities across the Midwest are under water right now or courting disaster not just because of the weather, but because we’ve failed to protect them. Maintaining our levees and dams isn’t pork barrel spending, it’s an urgent priority, and that’s what we’ll do when I’m President. I’ll also launch a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years, and create nearly two million new jobs. The work will be determined by what will maximize our safety, security, and shared prosperity. Instead of building bridges to nowhere, let’s build communities that meet the needs and reflect the dreams of our families. That’s what this bank will help us do. [...]

Let’s invest that money in a world-class transit system. Let’s re-commit federal dollars to strengthen mass transit and reform our tax code to give folks a reason to take the bus instead of driving to work – because investing in mass transit helps make metro areas more livable and can help our regional economies grow. And while we’re at it, we’ll partner with our mayors to invest in green energy technology and ensure that your buses and buildings are energy efficient. And we’ll also invest in our ports, roads, and high-speed rails – because I don’t want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai, I want to see it built right here in the United States of America.

Not that America was the world's leader in high-speed rail until the Chinese came along, but whatever -- I want to see the fastest train here, too. I'll be interested to see how much of a difference a somewhat different set of federal transportation policy priorities makes in practice. The Bush administration has been extremely hostile to rail transportation and not very interested in anything that's not cars. Nevertheless, the country's actually seen quite a lot in terms of light rail projects undertaken and cities trying to make themselves more bike friendly. It's at least conceivable that a relatively small change in federal policy could have a pretty big impact on decision-making at the state and local level -- as with education policy, the feds aren't really the key drivers, but they sometimes have the ability to leverage big changes with relatively small sums of money.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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