LaHood’s Letter to Boxer Shows his Ignorance on Transportation Issues

On May 16th, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wrote a letter to Senate Environmental and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer expressing the administration’s concerns with the passed Senate Transportation bill. LaHood is no transportation expert and his concerns do not address major transportation issues.

The Senate has passed a two-year bill. The House has not. Negotiations have begun between the Senate bill and the House version that merely extends the current policies for three months. Most experts do not expect a bill before the November elections. Many think a new Congress in 2013 may write completely different legislation.

Back to LaHood’s letter; Does it detail transportation policy specifics? Does it suggest fixes for current funding challenges? Does it try to work with House and Senate leaders to forge common ground? No, this letter, similar to most other transportation policy from the Obama White House, is about messaging.

First, LaHood spends the first half page threatening a Presidential veto for the Keystone Pipeline. Does the Keystone pipeline belong in this bill? No. But if the President had followed sound policy advice he received from the State Department or any of the numerous studies that indicated the pipeline was safe and approved, the pipeline would not be an issue. For those keeping track, both The Washington Post and former President Bill Clinton support construction of the pipeline

LaHood spends the rest of the first page criticizing the Senate for streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. NEPA is partly responsible for the average 12 year period that highway builders have to wait from the initial filing of project paperwork until the beginning of project construction. NEPA’s purpose, since its creation in 1969, has been to ensure environmental factors are weighed; NEPA’s role is not to stop or delay projects until they become unfeasible. But that has become the result. This is why the Democratically controlled Senate voted to streamline the process. The Senate did not eliminate NEPA; it simply made minor changes so the NEPA process complies with its legislative intent. Further, both Keystone and the NEPA are minor issues in the transportation bill. Why are they in the first page of this letter to the U.S. Senate? This is the administration’s way of ensuring that environmental activists donate to its re-election campaign.

On the second page, LaHood details how pleased he is with the safety aspects of the bill. He supports strengthening the role of transit safety, authorizing a distracted driving grant and mandatory funding of statewide traffic enforcement plans. Safety is important; these programs sound as if they could be useful. But again does LaHood cite the safety advantages? Is there any cost-benefit analysis? Has LaHood studied the relatively low crash risk of transit systems? No, no and very doubtful. LaHood has correctly calculated that it is politically popular to discuss safety. Any increase in mandatory federal government programs sounds good to him.

The Administration supports strengthening and reforming programs. This sounds good but LaHood’s dictionary defines reform in a very strange manner. LaHood supports the earmark ban but probably because it gives the Executive Branch more control not because he wants to decrease government debt. He already mentioned how he dislikes reforming NEPA. LaHood also dislikes Transit Privatization; in regards to privatization LaHood thinks the federal government should not interfere with the states. Are LaHood’s privatization views based on research? Does privatization save money? Does privatization increase efficiency? Does privatization help fund programs the government does not have the funds to support? LaHood also dislikes proposals to reduce management costs. Management is important for transportation projects. However some contend the U.S. DOT is management heavy. How does LaHood know that cutting management would be bad? Has he completed any studies?

LaHood’s most absurd claim is his promotion of the Merit Based Multi-modal Programs section. The TIGER program LaHood glorifies is neither merit-based nor mode-neutral. The program has a bias towards supporting multi-modal terminals and non-motorized projects. TIGER has funded some politically popular projects that do little to improve transportation. LaHood’s claim that TIGER dollars have leveraged eight times more money than federal funds compares apples to oranges. First, one of the reasons that the TIGER program has been so successful is that it takes advantage of private funding. This is the same private funding that LaHood criticized in the previous section. Second, TIGER is a discretionary program. As such the USDOT picks the “best” projects. And in order to be competitive in the awards process local or state transportation agencies often contribute 50% or more of the total project costs. Most other USDOT programs are formula based; the federal government provides 80% of 90% of the funds and states contribute the remaining 10-20%. The only good thing about the TIGER Program is that its discretionary nature induces states to spend more of their own money on infrastructure; therefore these projects require less federal money. Obviously, projects that receive 50% of federal funds have more non-federal sources of funding than projects that receive 90% federal funds. If the TIGER Grants program actually funded more worthwhile investments and fewer local bicycle paths in the districts of Democrats in competitive races, the TIGER program would be even more effective. More details on the TIGER Program are available here.

LaHood also supports programs that encourage merit-based investments in high-speed rail. Is he talking about France or Japan? The U.S. has yet to invest in one major high-speed rail line with any merits. If LaHood cared about merit investments he would have funded HSR in the Northeast instead of the Tampa-Orlando line, which the Pro-High-Speed-Rail group America 2050 fails to rank in its top 100 U.S. corridors. LaHood’s DOT would have offered rail funding for the Chicago to Milwaukee line, not the Madison to Milwaukee line, which is worthless without a link to Chicago. And if there is any project that lacks merits, it is the current 600-mile circuitous routing of the California line. I have doubts about high-speed rail succeeding in the U.S.; but spending money on true high-speed rail lines in dense corridors makes more sense than politically oriented boondoggles.

Thankfully the administration supports the TIFIA program. Although LaHood’s statements about making it merit-based scare me. If the administration considers the HSR program merit based perhaps they have confused synonyms with antonyms.

At the end of the letter, LaHood complains that Title V of the Senate bill undermines the Federal Government’s role in disposal of coal ash impoundment. While coal ash is not germane to the bill, of more interest is how the administration’s support of local decision making for transit operations and privatization but its opposition to local decision marking for issues relating to safety and coal ash—how convenient. The administration opposes federal control when it disagrees with part of a bill and likes federal control when it agrees with part of a bill.

This three-page letter is, in a nutshell, the Obama’s administration policy to transportation over the last three and a half years. The political leaders have little background in transportation; they either ignore or do not ask advice of the policy people in the DOT. LaHood has made no serious effort to understand transportation. Transportation is seen as a place to make a political statement; to this administration it is more important to have someone from Illinois than someone competent in transportation. (See The New York Times article here.) The administration involves itself in transportation policy making as little as possible, frequently abdicating all responsibility to Congress. And then when the Senate controlled by the President’s own party produces a transportation bill with a liberal lean, the Secretary of Transportation writes a three-page letter complaining about the bill’s failure to address environmental issues and comparing discretionary funding to formula funding. It is head-scratching; it is depressing; and it makes a mockery of a department run by bipartisan transportation professionals for the past 50 years.