Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) It's been a rough election season out there. Unless you've crawled into a cave for the last three months, you know the airwaves have been flooded with ads calling candidates everything from thieves to hooligans to rogues and everything in between. But the sour voter mood isn't just about advertisements -- it's about reduced circumstances, drastic cuts in local government services, higher taxes and fees, fewer jobs, and dramatically higher health care costs -- despite health care reform and an $800 billion stimulus bill.
Or as one Florida election volunteer Marcia told me in a largely African American neighborhood in Tampa last week: "People are disappointed," she said. "They thought they were going to have this magic wand that I'm going to save my home because we have Obama as President. And I'm going to have a job because we have Obama as President." But then, people lost their jobs, and they lost their homes.
"Where's the change?" retired Hoovers vacuum worker Alice Prestier asked me in Canton, Ohio. Or, more bitterly, as one Colorado contractor told me in Loveland, Colorado: “I don’t need to spend $2,000 to support every illegal f*****g Mexican in this country. Nor do I need to keep busting my ass for this government. You know, my son can’t ride the bus to school anymore. He’s got to walk two miles to school, explain that to me! You know, why does education have to go, but yet we can support illegals, we can piss money away on stuff that doesn’t’ matter, a health care plan that will never work?"
All of which has created a wary public, seemingly unwilling to spend on big transit projects like the ARC tunnel, high speed rail, or even roads. Even though the President has bracketed this campaign season with a call for $50 billion in additional spending on roads, rails, and airports and the distribution, last week, of some $2.5 billion in high speed rail grants, kitchen-table cut backs have spilled over into an attitude about government spending. Where once voters seemed to have faith that large infrastructure projects would create jobs, both in the long and short terms, they now worry that worthy as projects may be, there simply isn't enough money to spend on things like new transit tunnels, high speed rail systems, or even roads.
“It should all be fixed,” Debbie Horoschock told me at the Wilkes-Barre farmers market in late September" of the president’s proposal to spend money fixing rail, roads, and airports. So she thinks that would be a good thing to spend money on? “No. But they should be fixed.” How are they going to be fixed without money? “I don’t know how they are going to be fixed without money. But we need money to fix the damn roads.”
High speed rail, actually pilloried by some candidates (Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio) gets a lot more raised eyebrows. "They just shouldn't be spending on that project," one Ohio retiree in downtown Canton who wouldn't give her name told me. Even if that meant losing hundreds of millions of federal money coming straight to this depressed area? "Even so."
There are some bright spots for those who support big transit projects. In Colorado, the Democratic Gubernatorial candidate, John Hickenlooper, who made his bones pushing a sales tax for transit when he first became Mayor of Denver, in 2004, is leading in most polls, and his support of a sales tax is drawing some crossover support. And in Tampa, a similar measure is intriguing some voters who are supporting Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed candidate for U.S. Senate. The logic seems to be in how the tax is paid--it's a pay-as-you-go tax, not a large, one-time, acquisition of debt, much disfavored this election year.
Transportation Nation has been out in swing counties this election season. What we've learned about how America wants to build its future has been surprising, enlightening, sometimes harsh, and always deeply, deeply educational. Everyone looking at how government should address these questions in the next Congress should be reading these posts. In order of our visits: