U.S. DOT, White House facing more heat about transportation investment

Rep. DeFazio corners LaHood at hearing; ARTBA sends letter to Obama

News House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, ARTBA July 30, 2010
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Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) engaged in a heated discussion about infrastructure investment with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in a Transportation & Infrastructure Committee hearing on July 27.

DeFazio’s 5-minute-long question to LaHood was more like a hard plea to figure out a better way to fund a new six-year highway bill. DeFazio described the dismal condition of both the transit and National Highway System of the U.S., pointing to a $77.7 billion backlog in metropolitan rail systems, which has “killed people in D.C. and will kill people in other parts of the U.S,” and 150,000 bridges and 61,000 lane-miles that are in serious need of attention.

“We have this massive backlog [in transit] just to bring it up to safe operation conditions,” DeFazio told LaHood. “How are we going to do that? Are we going to triple, quadruple fares and drive all the riders off? Are we going to toll 150,000 bridges so we can rebuild them or bring them up to snuff? Are we going to toll the entire federal interstate system so we can bring that system up to snuff and make the investments we need?”

DeFazio rejected tolling, public-private partnerships and the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank—three solutions that have been proposed by the U.S. DOT—as ways to finance the next six-year highway bill.

“It is not going to get us there, and that is very sad,” DeFazio said.

LaHood quickly refuted DeFazio’s claim that the Obama administration lacked any urgency when it comes to addressing the infrastructure needs, and used the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to prove his point. LaHood said stimulus spending provided $48 billion to the transportation sector.

“President Obama knows that infrastructure investments will put people to work, and that is why we got $48 billion,” LaHood said.

LaHood added that the administration supports T&I Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar’s (D-Minn.) $450 billion six-year highway bill, and that the only thing that is missing is the financial means to support it.

“The Highway Trust Fund is deficient, so I do not know if the courage is around here to do something about that,” he said.

Oberstar concluded the hearing by correcting LaHood’s $450 billion funding gap in the House bill. By factoring in what is coming in via gas-tax receipts, he said, only $140 billion, or $20 billion annually, is really needed.

“Surely we can sit down and figure out where that money will come from,” Oberstar added.

On July 30, American Road & Transportation Builders President and CEO Pete Ruane sent a letter to President Obama urging to make a $500 billion, six-year highway bill a top priority of the administration after the November elections.

“Failure to do so will increase the likelihood of a serious transportation construction market crash in 2011-12 that will increase unemployment and negatively impact the nation’s economic recovery,” Ruane warned in the letter.

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