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Six U.S. Transportation Secretaries Discuss Past and Future Challenges

Posted by Ken Orski on Friday, January 27th, 2012

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 23, No. 4

Speaking to a standing-room-only audience on January 25 at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, six U.S. transportation secretaries reminisced about the most challenging issues they faced during their tenures and offered their views about the future prospects for the federal transportation program.

Sec. Ray LaHood stunned the audience by stating that he thinks it “very unlikely” that a reauthorization bill will pass during the current session of Congress. In his view, the differences between the House and the Senate are too great to be resolved in the polarized pre-election climate of the next ten months. The differences include Rep. Mica’s insistence on a 5-year bill vs. the Senate’s equal determination to proceed with a two-year bill and the House proposal to fund the bill partly with royalties from increased off-shore oil and gas drilling— a proposal that would find little if any support from Senate Democrats. A further difficulty is the lack of specifics offered by the House as to where the drilling would take place, how much revenue it would produce and when that revenue would become available.

The Secretary’s overtly expressed pessimism took many people by surprise, especially since in recent days there have been some encouraging signs of progress coming from Capitol Hill. These include Chairman John Mica’s announcement that he has set the date of February 2 for the committee mark up of the House reauthorization proposal, (now called The American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act); and the as yet unconfirmed report that the Senate Finance Committee has reached a bipartisan agreement on how to provide the $13 billion in offsets needed to fully fund the Senate version of the bill. To many people, these developments looked like Congress is finally poised to act.

But Sec. LaHood’s sober outlook for the future was shared by many of his colleagues. Joining him on the podium were former Secretaries Alan Boyd (1967-69); James Burnley IV (1987-89); Samuel Skinner (1989-91); Andrew Card (1992-93); and Rodney Slater (1997-2001). Invited but not present were William Coleman (1975-77) and Norman Mineta (2001-06).

“These will be difficult times for funding,” said Sec. Skinner: “Traditional ways aren’t working any more.” Sec. Burnley thought the Highway Trust Fund has “collapsed:” “Do we resurrect it, replace it with something else or devolve funding to the states?” Sec. Card expressed the dilemma facing policymakers in terms of “needs” vs. “wants.” We often justify “wants” by calling them “needs,” he said. Faced with current funding constraints, we may have to apply a stricter standard of “needs.” States and localities must be involved in this debate because local perceptions of “wants” and “needs” may differ from those entertained inside the Beltway.

Perhaps the President’s State of the Union message the night before had something to do with the diminished expectations of the distinguished speakers. Unlike previous times, the President made only a casual reference to “repairing America’s infrastructure” followed by a vague proposal to use half of the money “we’re no longer spending at war…to do some nation-building right here at home.” High-speed rail, trumpeted in the past as the President’s “signature” initiative, failed to earn even a single mention. Nor was the National Infrastructure Bank, another past favorite, mentioned by the President.

As one colleague observed, the idea of diverting war savings to domestic spending rather than to long-term deficit reduction won’t pass muster on Capitol Hill. “But it will please the transportation industry …who have been asking for the president to put his muscle behind a highway bill.”

According to an analysis by Alex Goldmark in Transportation Nation, President Obama made 509 references to infrastructure and infrastructure-related topics in his speeches during the course of 2011. (“From one State-of-the-Union to the next,” January 20, 2012). The absence of any proposal in the latest State-of-the-Union address for even a single specific infrastructure initiative  — such as a multi-year transportation bill — “speaks volumes about the President’s changing priorities in this election year,” one longtime Washington lobbyist told us.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 22nd year of publication.

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