LaHood Vows to Avert Federal Transpo Bankruptcy and Pay For It

The Obama administration is working on a plan to fill the shortfall
in the nation’s highway trust fund by August without adding to the
federal deficit, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress
today.

raylahood.jpgTransportation Secretary Ray LaHood (Photo: HillBuzz)

The circumstances behind the trust fund’s financial troubles are well-known: a nationwide decline in driving coupled with political resistance to raising the gas tax — which has remained static since 1993 — forced the Bush administration to push $8 billion
into the federal transportation coffers last summer. But that infusion
was not offset by corresponding spending cuts, which LaHood says the
Obama team is committed to this time around.

"We believe
very strongly that any trust fund fix must be paid for," LaHood told
members of the House Appropriations Committee’s transportation panel.
"We also believe that any trust fund fix must be tied to reform of the
current highway program to make it more performance-based and
accountable, such as improving safety or improving the livability of our communities — two priorities for me."

Urbanites
and transit riders may be cheered by LaHood’s call to tie new highway
funding to livability. Yet the administration’s quest to offset its
trust fund fix, which will cost as much as $7 billion, could prove
fruitless.

Rep. John Olver (D-MA), chairman of the panel
that greeted LaHood today, put it simply when asked if the necessary
spending cuts could be found. "That’d be very tough," he said, noting
that his own annual transportation spending is unlikely to become law
before the highway trust fund runs out of cash.

Livable streets advocates may wonder why the highway trust fund is relevant to their cause, particularly since the mass transit account of the fund isn’t projected to go bust until 2012.

The
answer is pragmatic and incremental — but unfortunately, so is
Congress. Replenishing the trust fund with a cost offset, as LaHood
suggests, requires a serious conversation about finding new long-term
revenue sources for not just highways but all modes of transportation.

If
lawmakers take the easy way out by not paying for the trust fund fix,
it doesn’t bode well for their chances of writing a new federal
transportation bill that dedicates more money to streetcars, buses and
rail, not to mention more responsible spending on roads.

Already there is a broad acknowledgment in Congress that the six-year federal bill will likely be put off until 2010.
Rep. Tom Latham (IA), the senior Republican in charge of transportation
spending, even predicted that the federal bill would not pass until
2011; next year is an election year, after all, which never inspires
courage in the Capitol.

The ball is now in the court of the Ways and Means Committee,
which has jurisdiction over the trust fund and would be tasked with
finding spending cuts to offset any upcoming transfer of transportation
money. Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) has influence and
moxie to rival any of his fellow lawmakers, but he has been silent on
transportation funding issues as health care and climate change
legislation take center stage for now.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

No New Federal Transportation Bill Until 2011?

|
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is asking Congress to extend the existing federal transportation law for 18 months, averting the coming insolvency of the nation’s highway trust fund while putting off broad-based transport reform for as long as the Bush administration did in the days surrounding the 2004 election. Photo: AP LaHood’s request comes at an […]

LaHood Talks Budget: “Very Bright” Future for Infrastructure Fund

|
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today that he sees "very bright" prospects for congressional approval of the Obama administration’s $4 billion National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund, the new iteration of the long-discussed National Infrastructure Bank proposal. Transportation Secretary LaHood, at left, with the president. (Photo: NYT) "There is a great deal of interest in […]
STREETSBLOG USA

LaHood Answers GOP Critic, Soothes Dem Skeptic of Sustainability Budget

|
As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tangled with a senior GOP senator today over the White House’s $500 million-plus request for its inter-agency office of sustainable communities — a new project aimed at channeling federal energy towards local transit-oriented and smart growth plans — an influential Democrat joined her fellow senator in raising questions about diverting […]

A Federal Transportation Bill is Coming… But When?

|
Senator Chris Dodd, whose committee is responsible for transit policy in the Transportation Act, with USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood, via SenChrisDodd on Flickr Editor’s Note: We’re happy to announce the premiere today of our new Streetsblog Capitol Hill reporter, Elana Schor. Elana has rich experience covering Washington as a reporter for The Hill, the Guardian […]

White House Staying Quiet For Now on Transit’s Role in Climate Bill

|
Delivering his climate-change message to Congress yesterday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned that fuel-efficiency advances secured by the Obama administration would not be enough to reduce emissions from transportation — not without encouraging Americans to drive less. Transportation Secretary LaHood said today he’ll weigh in later on climate-change money for transit. (Photo: HillBuzz) But when […]