Instead of spending his Earth day out in the wilderness, Vice President Joe Biden held an event at a bus depot in Maryland. He was announcing a plan to spend $300 million in stimulus funding for clean-fuel buses. While the money for this program was buried in the stimulus plan, Vice President Biden was seemingly excited to introduce the green mass transit program to the crowd in Maryland. The event marks the second time in one week that the Obama administration brought transit policy to the fore. We speak to Takeaway correspondent Andrea Bernstein to see "Amtrak Joe's" emerging portfolio.
If you weren't in Landover, Maryland yesterday, you can watch Vice President Biden's speech below.
John Hockenberry, The Takeaway: So, where did Joe Biden spend his Earth Day yesterday? The Vice President was at a bus depot in Maryland, outside of D.C.
Vice President Joe Biden [on tape]: We've heard for years that a greener economy will benefit our grandkids who are going to inherit a greener planet. We know that. We know that in our gut. That's true. But that's not the whole story. Building a green economy is for us too, right now, today, here.
President Barack Obama [on tape]: Nobody messes with Joe.
John Hockenberry: [Laughs] Well, they might be. Sometimes, when the Vice President chairs an event, you might think that it's not the most important thing in the administration. The Obama administration yesterday had Joe Biden talking about a clean bus program, the 2nd time in a week that the Obama administration has addressed mass transit. Andrea Bernstein joins us, Takeaway correspondent Andrea Bernstein. Gosh, I haven't talked to you in a while. It's great to welcome you back to the program, Andrea. Good morning.
Andrea Bernstein, Takeaway correspondent: Good morning, John.
John Hockenberry: When the Vice President chairs an event, maybe sometimes it isn't the most important thing. Is this a big job for Joe Biden, yesterday?
Andrea Bernstein: Well, you know, you've got to read the tea leaves carefully on this. The Obama administration had a bit of a slow start on transit, and got some blowback from environmentalists, transit activists, and you know, what do people usually do on Earth Day? They go to a lake, they go to a field, they plant a tree, wind turbines where the President was yesterday has become the issue du jour for environmentalists on Earth Day. But to go to transit is really pushing the ball down the field, and it's an acknowledgement that to solve the environmental problem, you not only have to have cleaner fuels, you not only have to have more people with access to cleaner fuels, but you also have to have less people driving because that's where most of the greenhouse gasses some from.
John Hockenberry: So how did Biden suggest this was going to be addressed by cleaning up busses, or actually making more of them?
Andrea Bernstein: Well, he announced yesterday $300 million in recovery funds for a clean cities program, and this is a Department of Energy program, not actually a transit program. It's an energy program that will buy hybrid busses and clean fleets for cities around the country. Now, of course, all this recovery stuff is not new money, it's all part of the $800 billion package we already know about. But it was an opportunity to highlight this, and to say this is what we want to do, and you could hear Biden at that bus depot yesterday, he was getting pretty excited about this stuff. Listen to this.
Vice President Joe Biden [on tape]: This program, the clean cities program, is in its 15th year. Already it's saved 2 billion gallons of petrolium used since its inception. And now, it's time to ramp it up. Ramp it up in a big way. We know it works.
John Hockenberry: Yeah, he sounds pretty excited there.
Andrea Bernstein: [Laughs] Getting a little breathless.
President Barack Obama [on tape]: Nobody messes with Joe.
John Hockenberry: [Laughs] That's right. I mean, he's big on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, big on the Judiciary Committee, but he's also a big Amtrak customer here. What's going on with Joe, is he rebranding himself?
Andrea Bernstein: It's so fascinating because, you know, last summer when he was selected Vice President, he was the guy that was going to help out with the 4am phone call about Pakistan or North Korea. He was the eminence grise. That was why everybody was like, yes! Joe Biden! Joe Biden! He fixes Obama's vulnerability, but nobody envisioned then that Hilary Clinton would be Secretary of State, and now that both she and Barack Obama are taking the calls in the middle of the night, Joe Biden has a bit of a new territory to carve out. And one of the things that he's been doing is really taking on transit. Now, it is a natural fit, he's known as the guy who took Amtrak every day, but you know, he's done stuff like he went to St. Cloud, Minnesota to a hybrid bus factory there, where actually a lot of orders are going to be coming in under the recovery act, because a lot of what people are doing with their transit money is this. He's been going to Amtrak stations, he's been holding these weekly recovery act cabinet meetings, it's become a major item in his portfolio. I wouldn't say it's a U-turn, but I don't think it's quite what people envisioned was going to be the big thing that Joe Biden was going to be doing when he was selected.
John Hockenberry: Let's talk policy for a moment. I mean, what would transit advocates say shows the Obama administration is really serious about a new national transit program that has some real teeth to it? I mean, we've heard a lot of talk on the stimulus package going to roads, which basically benefits car drivers, not necessarily bus drivers.
Andrea Bernstein: You know, I would say that up to now there has been mostly disappointment among people who care about mass transit in the Obama administration. People felt that the recovery act only had $8 billion dollars, now that's $8 billion but it's $8 billion out of $800 billion, so that's 1% and that's all the money for transit, and they were saying that isn't enough money, it doesn't show a real committment, you can't really change things with that. And indeed as this money has been doled out what we're finding is that what states are doing with it is they're not exactly rebuilding--building a 21st Century infrastructure, they're rebuilding the 20th Century infrastructure. A lot of fixing things.
John Hockenberry: If that. They're filling potholes. I spent lunch yesterday--
Andrea Bernstein: Or rebuilding bridges.
John Hockenberry: Rebuilding bridges.
Andrea Bernstein: If you're talking Minnesota.
John Hockenberry: Right, right. But still, again, it's not change, it's not visionary, it's repair work. I was talking with a bunch of architects yesterday at lunchtime, and they were describing how down in Sao Paolo, in Brazil, they're building 120 miles of new tunnels for a mass transit system. We're doing nothing like that here in the United States, Andrea.
Andrea Bernstein: Nothing at all under this bill. Now, the reason that people are getting a little excited now, just a little bit like their hearts are starting to beat a little faster, is because next month in the Congress there will be this giant transit authorization bill that's coming up. And this happens every six years, so it doesn't quite parallel the length of an administration, and it's tons of money for roads and what they're hoping is that this time around there'll be tons of money around for transit, so when they begin to see the administration talking about high speed rail, when they begin to see the administration talking about mass transit going as Joe Biden did yesterday to a transit station for his Earth Day thing, they're thinking ok, so maybe this administration is going to put serious muscle behind this. As a reauthorization fight comes up, speaking to a lobbyist from NRDC who has expressed great disappointment up to now, and he said you know, I think things may be beginning to turn, we'll see but --
John Hockenberry: It's an uphill battle. It's an uphill battle because those highway lobbys and those places around the country that want their highway money are powerful, powerful folks.
Andrea Bernstein: Yeah, it's true, and so, it is a battle. It is a battle about getting people out of their cars and changing their whole lifestyle, but as they point out, this is where most of the carbon footprints are coming, it's from driving.
John Hockenberry: Well, telling us what to watch as we look at this bill coming down the pike on roads and bridges and, hopefully, mass transit. Andrea Bernstein, Takeaway correspondent, thank you so much.
Andrea Bernstein: Thank you. Now I'm going to go out and charge something.
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