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Matt Dellinger

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Did This RNC Speaker Just Demand More Stimulus So He Could 'Build That'?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

At least until Rick Santorum’s soliloquy on hands, it was the strangest moment of the Republican National Convention Tuesday night: a small businessman from New Mexico stood at the podium and said—in remarks that were obviously vetted if not written by RNC organizers—that the Obama Administration had let him down... by not spending more money on his road signs.

The theme of the night—written on the walls and backdrops and hand-lettered signs, and laced through nearly every speech—was “We Built It,” an insistent jab at an Obama quote, “You didn’t build that,” which opponents heard as an insult to American ingenuity and bootstrappiness. The President doesn’t think people build their own businesses, the Republicans say, because he thinks the Government builds everything.

His comments, for those who haven't read them a dozen times, were: "Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen."

The President, and Democrats like Mass. Senate Candidate Elizabeth Warren, make the point with more nuance: businesses big and small are built by people— call them business-builders if you like—who themselves rely on things we can only build together as a society, like roads, schools and police departments.

But one doesn’t need to hunt for nuance to hear the RNC speaker, Phil Archuletta, saying that the government quite literally keeps his business alive, or that he’s quite upset that there wasn’t more federal largesse flowing his way. “When President Obama came on board and pushed the stimulus,” he told the convention Tuesday, "I believed my business was going to explode with work. Unfortunately, it never happened."  (His complete remarks are below.)

Today, liberal bloggers have fleshed out the details. The Huffington Post pointed out that “Archuletta saw over $340,000 in federal contracts under Obama in 2010, which makes up nearly half of the $800,000 he’s received in federal dollars over the past 10 years,” and Mother Jones reported that “Through the Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency, Archuleta secured an $850,000 Small Business Administration loan guarantee to build an 11,700-square-foot building for his company.”

No word yet on whether Archuletta will be invited to speak at the Democratic Convention, where perhaps he would have been a better fit.

Here are Mr. Archuletta’s full prepared remarks:

Phil Archuletta: Thank you, Governor.  And thank you, Tampa! My story is the story of many Americans, just like Governor Sandoval's. From humble beginnings, I built a successful business. But today my business is at risk because of the Obama administration. For the last 40 years, my company has built the road signs on the Forest Service road system.  In fact, in 1984, I was fortunate to receive the national award from President Reagan for being the most successful minority business in the United States. In 2004, President Bush made it possible for our company to manufacture signs for all federal agencies. When President Obama came on board and pushed the stimulus, I believed my business was going to explode with work. Unfortunately, it never happened. The Democratic Congress and the Obama administration created a new procurement process that harmed existing small business contracts, which devastated my business. I pleaded for help from my Congressman and Senators — all Democrats — and meetings were arranged with the Forest Service.  They all listened carefully, they made promises, but nothing happened. Today, we are barely hanging on with the orders from the state of New Mexico — thanks to Governor Susana Martinez — and the few orders still coming through the Forest Service from our very loyal customers. I have heard the same story from other small businesses from all over the country.President Obama talks like he supports small businesses, but his actions are destroying us.  His administration is putting us out of business. It is our turn to put them out of office! Thank you.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.


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Dukakis To Transportation Nation: You Were "Dead Wrong" on Romney and Infrastructure

Monday, August 20, 2012

If given a forum, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee) can dish out some sharp criticism of Mitt Romney's infrastructure record. He calls it "disappointing" and "pathetic." Last week I sent him an email that referenced my infrastructure reporting here on Transportation Nation. And today I got a dose of his blunt assessments. He told me I was "dead wrong."
When I reviewed the transportation policy of Dukakis' fellow former governor of Massachusetts and current presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, I found he was a metro-friendly moderate with a focus on fixing what already existed. Dukakis disagrees.
He wrote:

"You were dead wrong. When Romney left the governorship, the state was a wreck-- rusting bridges, potholed roads, a great transit system that had serious financial problems he refused to fix, and a pathetic inability to get anything done. Projects that should have taken months took years, and his " fix it first" program was a joke."

He also offered to talk with me on the phone to offer more details. Full transcript of that below. This communication follows Dukakis' latest bout of criticism for Romney which aired on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show last week.

Dukakis said flatly that after Romney’s four years as Governor “the state’s infrastructure, Rachel, was a wreck. That’s the only way you can describe it. Rusting bridges, potholed roads, couldn’t get anything done.” He later got slightly more specific by saying “bridge projects that should have taken eighteen months were taking four and five and six years. He couldn’t get anything done.”

This conflicted with my review in December of Romney's tenure. I found reason to praise Governor Romney’s record on transportation—specifically his focus, in a twenty-year statewide plan released in 2005, on repair and maintenance. The plan directed at least 75 percent of all new capital spending toward maintaining and improving the Commonwealth’s existing network, “consistent with the Romney administration’s ‘Fix-It-First’ policy," the release said.

We will of course continue to assess the candidates' records ourselves, which will include reaching out for comment from those Dukakis criticizes below. (When Dukakis took a swipe at Romney two years ago, a Romney spokesperson simply shot back that "Mike Dukakis sounds like a very angry and bitter old man.”)

But Dukakis' elaborations are worth noting. He shares two key resume bullet points with Romney and as this edited transcript shows, a passion for potholes ... and bridges and transit, and most of all Mitt Romney's record.

Edited transcript:

Dellinger: Governor, I would love to have you elaborate on the comments you made about Romney's record on infrastructure. I had the impression — mind you, at a time when you see some Republican Governors actively canceling high-speed rail and tunnel projects — that Romney was decent on transportation, that he at least talked a good game about the importance of maintenance and transit.

Dukakis: I guess he did. But Romney is one of the great disappointments to me. I mean, I was a huge fan of his dad’s. And in fact, truth be know, I courted Kitty in little yellow Rambler convertible in the early 60s, because George Romney was the only guy in Detroit making a small, fuel-efficient car. And George was a fine governor and a darn good Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (an agency his kid wants to abolish), and in fact some of my best housing people worked for him at HUD and were big fans of his. He was one of those prototypical, better than just moderate republicans. He was a doer, he believed in this stuff, thought it was important, and that government had a role to play.

When Mitt first arrived on the scene, as a [Senate] candidate against [Ted] Kennedy, he sounded very much like his dad, in the best sense. And when he became governor, we all assumed this guy is going to be George Romney Junior. And to this day I really don't understand this guy. His economic record was a disaster. Fourth from bottom in job creation. And just a lot of talk and no action. He just didn't seem to understand how to a Governor moves an economy, and especially the economy of the old older urban communities in the state, which is where we have the most economic stress. Or the role of infrastructure in stimulating that.

But on the infrastructure stuff itself, the guy was just really pathetic. I mean, I was all for the fix-it first thing. I think you got a fix it first before you start new stuff, although there were a number of new projects that we wanted to move on. But he was kind of detached. He had a very weak transportation team. It was a guy named Daniel Grabauskas who was the secretary of transportation, who now of all things has been hired to run the Honolulu transit system. Don't ask me what they expect him to do out there. But he was very ineffective, very weak. They just couldn't get anything done. Projects that should have taken months took years.

And as you know, here in the state it's not just the highways, but it's the Metropolitan transit system and the commuter rail system. We had stations, T stations, that were under reconstruction for years under this guy. And I'll tell you one story which is typical. The Ashmont station on the red line is a big station in the Dorchester section of Boston. And it was kind of an old station and so they're going to do a major reconstruction and do some transit-oriented development there. So a team was designated to do affordable housing next to Ashmont Station. And they did it. In about 18 months it was up and running, leased and all that stuff. The station project, which went way over budget, went on and on and on. And at some press conference some reporter asked Romney, 'What about Ashmont?' Romney had no idea where Ashmont station was.

You know he's always been a puzzle to me. So we ended up with bridge projects that should have taken twelve months that were taking three or four years. When I said the state's infrastructure was a wreck when he left it, that was not an exaggeration I remember driving up 128, and honest to God nine out of ten bridges were covered with rust. I mean they couldn't even paint bridges. And as you know, if you don't paint the bridge for 200,000 bucks, pretty soon you're gonna have a reconstruction job for 3 million. They couldn't do it. He was kind of detached. And then of course in his last year and a half, it was all about the presidency, so we never saw him.

And look, I had the best state transportation Sec. in the country. I mean nobody's better than Fred Salvucci. Fred's just remarkable, and we did billions of dollars worth of construction, completely redid the T, and all this kind of stuff. We were deeply involved, he and I, in the fight to kill the master highway plan and shift some money to public transportation, which we were able to do. So it's a big thing with me, but Romney just couldn't do it.

Dellinger: But let me just challenge you. Talking about a governor's record, isn't there a delayed effect, especially when it comes to visible signs of transportation improvements? In fact, you even said it's going to take Gov. Deval Patrick his full two terms to fix all of this. But you're judging Romney on only one term.

Dukakis: Yeah but Patrick has turned this economy around. Were really moving around here. And Patrick has worked it. I mean worked it. Intensively. He hasn't been fooling around on this life sciences stuff. And it's working. Metropolitan Boston is just popping with activity. Patrick has been fully engaged in this, and actively so. Romney never was. I mean I don't want to go on anecdotally at great length, but one of the things a number of us suggested to Romney was that he do what I—and of course Deval has done a number of times, and that is take a major state project and put it in a distressed area as a stimulus for revitalization. When I was governor we did this a lot in our older urban communities.

One of the proposals we made to him—and in fact I met with him personally, the only time I met with him was early in his term—was take the state Department of public health, which had about 1000 employees and was occupying expensive downtown office space, and move them to the Dudley section of Boston, which is Roxbury, which is now in the process of revival thanks to the mayor. But putting 1000 state employees in the new building, or a reconstructed building would have been a huge stimulus for this revitalization. And a bunch of us went in to see him. He certainly understood it. Never produced. Just never produced. Whether he didn't get it, or didn't understand it. And in fact he would've saved the state money. Rents out there are a lot cheaper than they were in downtown Boston. Just another example of the guys inability either to understand how you do this, or to execute, or something. But Patrick, in his first term, has turned this thing around.

Dellinger: I guess what I'm getting at is that with infrastructure a governor faces not just challenges that started when he first took office. The bridges are rusting because we built a lot of things right after World War II that were last that were meant to last 50 years, and the egg timers all went off at the same time.

Dukakis: To be sure. But what does it take to paint a bridge?

Dellinger: Well even today Massachusetts is suffering under the weight of having to pay debt service on the Big Dig. Romney spoke of moving the state to it's post-Big-Dig future, focusing on repairs. But there simply wasn't a lot of money to go around. 

Dukakis: Well, no. And the Big Dig was the result of sheer incompetence. I mean if Salvucci had been running that job it would have been done in half the time at half the cost. Trust me. And in fact I suggested to Weld when he took over that he ask Fred to stay on just to run the Big Dig. Well he rejected that advice. Fine and dandy. Then he picked a guy to run it was just utterly incompetent. But I'm not blaming Romney for the Big Dig. I mean that was largely the fault of Weld. But I'm not talking in terms of huge projects. I'm talking about bridge painting. I'm talking about bridge reconstructions, those kinds of things. Romney just couldn't do it. Just couldn't get it done. He didn't seem to be engaged. Didn't seem to understand the importance of it. Wasn't personally into it. And had a very very weak transportation team.

Dellinger: Can you point to specific things that you did, and that Gov. Patrick maybe is now doing, that were different, on a day-to-day level, with transportation? 

Dukakis: Well first you got to pick good people. Got to pick good people. And then secondly you have to be personally into it. I mean I was just all over this thing. Now it happens to be a particular interest of mine. It's something I go way back on. I don't know whether you're familiar with the history of this place, but like everyone other metropolitan area, we were told that in order to solve our problems coming out of World War II in the sixties and seventies that we had to build a so-called master highway plan that involved eight lane expressway's into the heart of the city. I thought it was a prescription for disaster. And meanwhile the T was falling apart. It was a basket case.

Fred Salvucci and I were deeply involved in the 60s—I was a young legislator at the time—in ultimately fighting and killing the master Highway plan. We were the first state in the country, thanks to [Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill, to be able to use our previously designated interstate highway money for public transportation. It had never been done before. This was back in the time when you couldn't bust the Highway trust fund had to be gasoline tax money had to be used for highways. And so Fred and I had literally about $3 billion in former highway money.

This was the mid-70s. When Ford, who was quite good on the stuff by the way, was President, and then Carter. But it was Tip and the congressional delegation that obviously made it possible for us to do that. And so we basically just did a huge job on the T. I mean massive modernization. We acquired the existing commuter rail system from the private railroads for a song and used the highway money to transform that. It's now carrying 150,000 people a day. That's just commuter rail not to mention the T itself. All stations, total reconstructions. And you know today we've got one of the best public transportation systems in the country, and it's made a huge huge difference. So I both as a legislator and the governor was into this and deeply committed to it.

Dellinger: I agree that where money is appropriated, to what mode, is a very key factor in determining outcome. And when I looked into Romney's budget, he did seem to put his dollars where his mouth was. 

Dukakis: Just couldn't execute. That was his problem. Couldn't execute.

Dellinger: That sounds so subjective, though. What exactly does that mean? 

Dukakis: He couldn't get it done.

Dellinger: His DOT couldn't get things done... on time?

Dukakis: He just wasn't engaged. I mean that's Romney. He's kind of out there someplace. He just doesn't get into it. For one thing I rode the T. It wasn't an act. I was riding it since I was five. It's amazing what you learn when you ride the transit system. And you know, I'm a huge national rail passenger guy. I was on the Amtrak board. Romney has just announced he's for abolishing, getting rid of all Amtrak subsidies. I don't know what the hell he's talking about. Is he serious? Amtrak just carried 30 million people this past year. I mean if this country doesn't need a first-class national rail passenger system, I don't know what it does need.

Dellinger: Paul Ryan's budget opines that "“high-speed rail and other new intercity rail projects should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services.” I assume you disagree that all new rail projects should be done as profitable businesses only?

Dukakis: There's no profitable— Well, we are making money on the Northeast corridor and the Acela. But were spending $40 billion in public subsidies on highways, $16 billion on air, and a billion and a half on Amtrak. Don't these guys understand? I mean where are they? I don't know what the hell they're talking about. Every mode of transportation, as you know, is subsidized. And rail and highway's and air are far more heavily subsidized than rail.

You go to Europe you go to Japan—Kitty and I went to South Korea a year ago where I'd been stationed back in the mid-50s—and it's embarrassing coming back from the United States after you've been over there. My God, they've got the best airport in the country, terrific transit in Seoul. Two high-speed rail lines. Couldn't find my unit in the DMZ because there's a huge new commuter rail station in what used to be a rice paddy when I was there. And here we are just stumbling around. I mean I just don't know what these guys are talking about.

Anyway that's my take on it, for whatever it's worth.

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Analysis: Picking Ryan Means Picking Fight on Transportation

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

 

Congressman Paul Ryan speaks at a Romney Rally in Manassas, Virginia, Sunday. (Photo by Flickr user monkeyz_uncle)

“Sharp” is a word you may have heard a lot these past few days. It’s a favorite descriptor for Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congressman who became Mitt Romney’s running mate as of Saturday morning. Sharp, say friends and foes alike, are Ryan’s appearance, his mind, his criticisms of President Barack Obama, the spending reductions he favors—and now, somewhat suddenly, the contrast between the policies embodied by the presumptive Republican challengers and those of the incumbent Democrats. It is a perceived sharpness that itself stands in contrast, of course, to Mitt Romney’s pre-Ryan candidacy, which many commentators found too muddled and many conservatives found too moderate.

Take transportation, for instance. Romney, as this blog observed, spoke and behaved as a metro-friendly moderate when he was Governor of Massachusetts. Romney’s transportation budgets were modally balanced, with an emphasis on fixing what already existed, and he worked hard to create a new state agency to encourage smart growth development and sustainability. A candidate who still believed in those principles might not have many sharp things to say about transportation in a debate with President Barack Obama.

The Obama Administration subscribes to the belief, by no means exclusive to liberals, that infrastructure spending is crucial to creating jobs and keeping America competitive. Judging from Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint, the newly tapped V.P. candidate takes issue not with just the dollar figures required to test Obama's idea, but the philosophy itself.

As high-speed rail advocates and transit-friendly bloggers are already aware, Ryan will bring plenty of sharp contrast to the presidential campaign. Yonah Freemark of Transport Politic put it neatly:

“Mr. Ryan voted against every piece of transportation legislation proposed by Democrats when they controlled the lower chamber between 2007 and early 2010, with the exception of a bill subsidizing the automobile industry to the tune of $14 billion in loans in December 2008. This record included a vote against moving $8 billion into the highway trust fund in July 2008 (the overall vote was 387 to 37), a bill that was necessary to keep transportation funding at existing levels of investment. Meanwhile, he voted for a failed amendment that would have significantly cut back funding for Amtrak and voted against a widely popular bill that would expand grants for public transportation projects. He did vote in favor of the most recent transportation bill extension.”

These votes of Ryan's weren’t a matter of toeing the party line, either. Republican House Transportation Chairman John Mica, for instance, took the other side on every one of these votes except the failed amendment cutting funding for Amtrak.

But no budget hawk is perfect. Ryan did show a certain weakness for transportation dollars back when George W. Bush was President. In July of 2005, he joined the 412-8 majority in voting for the infamously pork-laden, “bridge-to-nowhere”-building reauthorization bill SAFETEA-LU. And then he sent out a press release listing all of the earmarks he had won for his district, including $7.2 million for the widening of I-94 between the Illinois state line and Milwaukee, $3.2 million for a bypass around Burlington, and $2.4 million for work on I-43 in Rock County. Small authorizations were also secured for preliminary engineering work on the Kenosha streetcar expansion project and Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail. Ryan’s press release boasted that the state of Wisconsin was still a donee state, getting back $1.06 for every federal tax dollar, up from $1.02 the previous authorization. But “there’s no gas tax increase, and it draws on the Highway Trust Fund – not general revenues – for transportation spending, and it’s fair for Wisconsin gas tax payers.”

Five years later, as we know, it became unfashionable, gauche even, to be seen indulging in earmarks and other federal largess. In November 2010, that Tea Party autumn, Republican Scott Walker won the governorship of Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin after a campaign that made a major issue of the Milwaukee-to-Madison high speed rail “boondoggle.” In a television commercial, Walker said he’d rather use the $810 million to fix Wisconsin’s roads and bridges. But the money wasn’t fungible. As Walker and Florida Governor Rick Scott soon had to admit, turning down the money only meant re-gifting it to high speed rail projects in other, bluer, more grateful states.

Paul Ryan tried to change that. Just a few days after Walker’s election, he and two fellow Wisconsin Republicans co-sponsored legislation in the House to order returned high-speed rail money deposited into the general fund for the purposes of deficit reduction. The bill would have changed the political dynamic of federal high-speed rail funding had it passed, placing new pressure on any governor who accepted those grants. For whatever reason, the bill never left committee.

When Ryan became Chairman of the House Budget Committee, in 2011, he put forth a 2012 budget that, reflecting Ryan’s commitment not to raise the gas tax or draw from the general fund, reduced transportation spending from its 2011 level of $95 billion gradually down to $66 billion in 2015. That was at a time when the Obama Administration was proposing a six-year infrastructure outlay of $476 billion “to modernize the country’s transportation infrastructure, and pave the way for long-term economic growth.”

But there’s the rub. Chairman Ryan refutes that premise. In his budget, transportation spending is not economic investment. To quote the 2013 budget:

In the first two years of the Obama administration, funding for the Department of Transportation grew by 24 percent–and that doesn’t count the stimulus spike, which nearly doubled transportation spending in one year. The mechanisms of federal highway and transit spending have become distorted, leading to imprudent, irresponsible, and often downright wasteful spending. Further, however worthy some highway projects might be, their capacity as job creators has been vastly oversold, as demonstrated by the extravagant but unfulfilled promises that accompanied the 2009 stimulus bill, particularly with regard to high-speed rail.

The document goes on to say that the country’s fiscal challenges make “long-term subsidization infeasible,” and that “high-speed rail and other new intercity rail projects should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services.” (It’s unclear whether Ryan believes that new highways should also be built as self-supporting commercial services. But he should give Rick Perry a call before saying so publicly.)

With Ryan now on the Republican ticket, one can see more clearly the (sharper) contours of the general election debate, and infrastructure spending might just have a starring role. It’s there in the debate over the federal budget, and the federal funding role. It’s at the crux of the hullabaloo over “You didn’t build that” (a government theory Elizabeth Warren articulated better). And it will be there when Paul Ryan debates Amtrak Joe.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Interstate? Close Enough

Thursday, July 12, 2012

John Thompson, Polk County Judge and Chairman of the Alliance for I-69 Texas, presents an Interstate 69 sign to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (photo:  i69texasalliance.com)

A new riddle for you: when is an Interstate not an Interstate?

For decades, the criteria for designating new or improved roads as Interstate Highways were fairly straightforward. The Federal Highway Administration would certify “that the segment (a) is built to Interstate design standards and (b) connects to the existing Interstate System.” In short, Interstates had to be Inter-state.

But not any more. With the signing of MAP-21 last week, the law has been changed to do away with requirement (b) and allow disconnected pieces of floating “Interstate”—as long as the segment is “planned to connect to an existing Interstate System segment” in the next 25 years.

This might seem like a strange, even absurd, tweak to make, especially as part of such a contentious bill. But the provenance of the language makes its purpose clear. The change in definition was initially written as a special exception for Interstate 69, the so-called “NAFTA Highway, which has been in the works for twenty years. Congressman Blake Farenthold, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced matching bills last spring in their respective houses. Both are Republicans, but the entire Texas delegation supported the measure in lockstep.

Exceptions already existed to the standard Interstate designation. The non-contiguous states and territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico all have quasi-Interstates that were funded through the Interstate program despite the fact that they don’t meet the normal design criteria and, more obviously, will never connect to the rest of the system (unless we invade British Columbia and build some very impressive tunnels). But the new rule change is notable in that its reason for being is psychological, not geographical.

Existing freeway sections on I-69 route in Texas. Illustration / i69texasalliance.com

In practical terms, the relaxed criteria will allow Texas to erect Interstate 69 signs on about eighty miles of improved highway in the Lower Rio Grand Valley border region, despite the fact that these segments don’t actually connect to other Interstates. This new designation, local officials and businessmen believe, will enhance economic development opportunities, because developers, employers, and freight companies perceive an “Interstate” differently from a U.S. Highway, even if that U.S. Highway is built to Interstate standards.

This “Interstate” branding has been an obsession among the business community in the growing Lower Rio Grande Valley region, which bears the burden of being the largest metropolitan area in the country with no Interstate highway. Back in the mid-1990s, lobbyists for the Interstate 69 coalition (including Tom Delay’s brother Randy) won legislative approval to post “Future Interstate 69 Corridor” signs along U.S. 59, U.S. 281, and U.S. 77, from Texarkana through Houston and down to the Mexican Border.

The Interstate 69 project (about which I wrote a book) is the largest new construction project since the original interstate system, and has not been without controversy. Some states—such as Indiana, Arkansas, and Louisiana—are building Interstate 69 as a greenfield highway through untouched farms and forests. (And for about seven years, when Interstate 69 was part of Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor scheme, Texas was planning to do the same.) But other states—such as Kentucky and Texas—chose to upgrade existing highways to Interstate standards.

This is not the first time the rules have been changed to get Interstate 69 signs up faster. Last fall, the Federal Highway Administration made an exception and designated thirty-eight miles of the Western Kentucky Parkway as I-69, even though the road was not up to Interstate standards. Kentucky State Senator Dorsey Ridley told the Henderson Gleaner that the red white and blue signs held more magic than any actual roadwork could. “This will move economic development in a way people don’t realize,” he said “simply by putting up a shield called I-69.” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez agreed, saying in a statement that "these improvements will create jobs now and encourage development in the future."

It’s a sign of our times—pardon the pun—that our public servants hope to create jobs by rebranding roadways, and that a reauthorization bill that failed to increase funding for real physical transformations to our infrastructure nevertheless lowered standards to allow more superficial transformations.

Now if we can just get the definition of “High Speed” rail down to 45 mph...

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Fed Transportation Conference Report: Not a Touchdown. More Like A Field Goal.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Now that the Transportation Bill conference committee has finally released a report (ongress has all of two days to pass it before the June 30th deadline on the current (ninth) extension. That’s not much time to fully analyze the entire 599-page Conference Report, but fortunately the committee provided a “brief” 91-page Joint Explanatory Statement.

It appears from first glance that the document is in almost every way a lukewarm compromise bill:

  • It covers two years, not six.
  • It lacks the most extreme provisions contemplated over the past months: Keystone pipeline approval, relaxing coal ash regulations, cutting mass transit spending from the Highway Trust Fund.
  • It includes reforms that enjoyed bipartisan support—program streamlining, accelerated environmental review.
  • It maintains current funding, adjusted for inflation, without indexing the gas tax or limiting spending to its revenue.

Spending on biking, walking, and beautification “transportation enhancements” remains, and half of those funds will be sent directly to metropolitan areas. That's a win for supporters. And half will be sent to the states, which are free to spend them on roads instead. That's a win for detractors.

Transportation For America, one of several organizations created around what many expected would be a transformative, next-generation transportation bill in 2009, made note earlier this week that the last major re-authorization had expired more than 1,000-days ago.

In the context of those last several years of gridlock, this conference report, by its mere existence, amounts to something of a breakthrough.

Something of a breakthrough. The conference report makes useful changes but fails to put the nation on the solid footing that transportation advocates of both parties have been yearning for.  For example, it doesn’t replace or significantly augment gas-tax funding. Nor does it create or even allow a visionary level of investment--public or private.

It’s better than another punt, but by no means a touchdown, for anyone. We’ll call it a field goal. A victory for minimal competence. Some conference report highlights:

  • Consolidates the number of highway programs by two-thirds, making more resources available directly to states and metropolitan areas.
  • Allows acceleration of environmental reviews while maintaining environmental protections.
  • Introduces performance measures to better focus spending on measurable outcomes such as reducing congestion, improving road and bridge conditions, and freight movement.
    Expands the TIFIA program to $1 Billion per year.
  • Creates a pilot program for transit-oriented development planning.
  • Increases (modestly) spending on public transportation in Appalachian region and on Indian reservations.

Key proposals that were not included:

  • NO Keystone oil pipeline approval, nor language to weaken restrictions on coal ash, as proposed by House Republicans.
  • NO permission for transit agencies to use federal capital funds for operating expenses during periods of high unemployment, as proposed by Senate Democrats.
  • NO funding reductions for states based on mileage leased to private concessionaires, as proposed by Senate Democrats.

Check back with us soon for more news and analysis.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.


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Will Walker's Wisconsin Win Mean No Milwaukee Streetcar?

Monday, June 11, 2012

A rendering of a Milwaukee streetcar, from milwaukeestreetcar.com

Governor Scott Walker’s triumph in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election seems to vindicate yet again his anti-rail campaign strategy. Supporters of the Millwaukee streetcar, his latest punching bag, must be worried now that Walker will make their pet project the next piece of trophy taxidermy on his office wall, right beside the high speed “boondoggle train to Madison.”

If we’ve learned anything these last few years it’s that an empowered Governor can do a lot to frustrate local wishes, be they for a commuter rail tunnel, a potentially profitable high speed train line, or a cherished lack of interstate highway.  But there’s reason to think Walker might be powerless to stop the streetcar plan, even if he wanted to do so.

A year ago, before the recall campaigning, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a thorough piece elucidating one possible reason the Republican Governor wasn’t making a big deal of the streetcar at the time:

A 10-year-old civil rights settlement could explain the governor's reticence.

That deal prohibits the state from blocking the streetcar project, according to a top federal transportation official and an attorney involved in the settlement.

Faced with allegations that it was discriminating against urban minorities by favoring freeways over light rail, the state agreed in November 2000 to cooperate with the Milwaukee Connector study and to incorporate its recommendations into the state's long-term transportation plans. That study eventually spawned the streetcar.

(For more in-depth reporting and context on the historical confluence of race and transit, listen to Transportation Nation’s Back of the Bus documentary)

We reached John Norquist, the President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, who was mayor of Milwaukee at the time of the agreement. He agreed that it wouldn’t be possible for the streetcar funding to be re-purposed without the consent of the mayor, which seems unlikely since Mayor Tom Barrett was Walker’s recall opponent. “Walker can’t take the money. It’s a joint agreement,” Norquist said. “If Barrett doesn’t agree to move the money, then the money stays where it is.”

But keeping the funding safe for one project shouldn’t be the end of the story, Norquist said. “I think the transit advocates in Milwaukee need to attack the wasteful road projects that Walker’s engaged in, the boondoggle of widening Interstate 94 to eight lanes between Milwaukee and the Illinois state boundary. That’s something like 4 billion dollars. Just to go from six to eight lanes.”

(Repeated calls and e-mails to Walker's Office were not returned.)

Agreeing with certain regretful comments made by Wisconsin State Representative Brett Hulsey to Transportation Nation last week, Norquist said that the Democrats and pro-train advocates were too timid and passive in the face of Walker’s barrage of criticism. “They need to have an intellectual theory behind what they’re doing. We did this back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We threw out a bunch of pro-highway legislators in Milwaukee, and a bunch of us got elected on an anti-freeway campaign. We killed all three pending freeways in Milwaukee.” The streetcar money originally came from funds returned for the unbuilt Stadium North Freeway.  “Originally it was $500 million. And the state DOT has been trying to steal it ever since.”

Since those anti-freeway heyday that brought him into power, the pendulum has swung the other way, he says, largely because of racial fears tied to transit in Wisconsin. “This last election Walker ran against the city, tried to wrap the fear about the big city around Barrett’s neck,” Norquist observed. “It’s all very hardcore. They treat transit like it’s a welfare queen sashaying down a welfare promenade.”

But he also thinks that attitude might soon run its course. “I think Walker’s attitude still works because the a lot of those post-war generation are still voting their fears about the city and there’s still a lot of them around,” he said. “But it’s about to change. Young people—the Millenials—like urban place, and they don’t have a negative attitude toward transit.” In 1970, there were nine cities in the nation with rail transit systems, he pointed out, while today, some forty cities have it, including many in sun belt. “I think Walker will be one of the last of the people that are able to use transit as a wedge issue.”

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Will Walker Walk, or Get Railroaded Out of Madison?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ran against trains, and won. Will it work again? Photo by WisPolitics.com

Next Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin means everything to the prospect of improved train service in that state. But local rail advocates are still unsure whether the passenger rail issue will hurt or help embattled Republican Governor Scott Walker, who is in a tight race against challenger Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee.

“I think we’ve taken it from a big negative for us to about a break-even,” said Brett Hulsey, a Democratic state assemblyman from the west side of Madison who is an outspoken supporter of both Barrett and better trains. “That’s progress. But Walker has TV ads now beating up Barrett for a $100 million dollar streetcar project in Milwaukee. Apparently this is still polling well for Walker.”

In the fall of 2010, when Walker ran for the statehouse, he made an issue of the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail project, which had received $810 million in federal funding, saying “I’d rather take that money and fix Wisconsin’s crumbling roads and bridges.” Walker also set up a website, NoTrain.Com.

The money wasn’t, in fact, fungible, and soon after he was elected, Walker returned it to the federal government, which redistributed it to other states, including California and Illinois.  Other Republican governors,  Rick Scott of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio, followed suit.

As it turned out, stopping the “Boondoggle train to Madison” was a political winner.

“Transportation choice advocates and Democrats, didn’t do a good job leading up to the last election, in explaining the benefits,” Hulsey admits. “We thought we had a done deal. And we should have done a better job making it part of the political discourse.”

Barrett, for his part, is trying to do just that, drawing a straight line between transportation improvements and the state’s hunger for jobs with visits to the. He recently visited a Talgo factory that has been making new train cars for the existing Hiawatha line. Funding for that too is in jeopardy, even though the cars are 99 percent complete.

Talgo is no passive prop. The company hasn’t been at all shy about their feelings for Walker’s leadership. Their Twitter feed has been quite sharp, and the company’s Vice President of Public Affairs and Business Development, Nora Friend, recently complained bluntly to Milwaukee’s WUWM radio. that the Walker Administration’s apparent intention to breach a maintenance contract would mean Talgo would have to close its current facility and lay off skilled workers.

“We find ourselves in this situation,” she said, “because of the blunder of returning $810 million dollars. The cost of that permanent maintenance facility was included in those finds that Wisconsin competed to get. We don’t want to have to litigate our contract. What we want is very simple. we want the state of wisconsin to do what it preaches, that it is open for business.”

Hulsey points to a report that Walker has actually given away $1.3 Billion in federal money, and thinks the public is starting to understand the Democrat’s view of the matter. “We have educated the public that of the 35,000 jobs that we lost last year, 5,500 of those jobs would have been people upgrading our train tracks, direct and indirect jobs.”

Hulsey likes to encourage train supporters in states such as Illinois to send letters to Walker thanking him for the re-appropriated funds and resulting jobs.

“Those jobs and the benefits of those jobs would have far exceeded any operating costs to maintain rail service to Madison," said Nora Friend.

Walker’s straightforward position, like that of Florida Governor Rick Scott, is that, given the economic climate and mounting deficits, federal and state governments cannot afford to risk millions and billions of dollars on rail systems they see as speculative and likely to require years of subsidy. Whether voters agree with this, or the argument that government is in a unique position to create desperately needed jobs and new infrastructure critical to economic development, won’t be clear until election day, if then.

But Hulsey counters Walkers claims with a classic Democratic argument. “The fact that this is happening in battleground states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida is not an accident,” he told me. “This is part of the Republican do-nothing strategy to try to make President Obama look as bad as possible. Hurting workers to hurt Obama is the overall strategy.”

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Reversing a Radical Rewrite: Can Boehner Go Bipartisan?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rep. Bill Shuster at bat in congressional baseball game, perhaps pinch hitting for Mica. (House photo)

It’s hard to see clearly through the wreckage of the House transportation bill, but Speaker John Boehner’s actions last week—saying his chamber would work with legislation put forth by the Democratic Senate, “or something like it,” and asking Railroad Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster to lead the way—suggest the speaker might actually be looking to win minority votes on a bill he touted as a boon for long-term job growth.

The stunning turnaround came as Boehner at last admitted defeat on the unpopular five-year legislation he and transportation chairman John Mica put forth. Reminiscent of the FAA showdown, which left congressional leadership singed, the current transportation authorization expires March 31st, and has already been extended eight times since its expiration in 2009.

There was plenty not to like in the House bill, which would have paid for transportation in part with a controversial extension of oil and gas drilling and would have exiled transit projects from the highway trust fund, undoing a legacy left by Ronald Reagan. Conservatives complained that the price tag was too high, while moderate metropolitan Republicans chafed at the snub to mass transit funding. U.S. Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a former Republican congressman,  repeatedly trashed the bill as "lousy," "terrible," "the worst bill in decades" and "taking us back to the horse and buggy days."

Even had it passed the House, the Boehner-Mica bill’s severe provisions would have guaranteed a showdown with the Senate, almost surely leading to gridlock and brinkmanship. This just as independent voters are recoiling even further from what they see as congressional dysfunction and party extremism.

In the absence of consensus among Republicans, Boehner’s decision to shelve the bill seems apt. More telling, though, was his move to bench Mica and enlist Shuster. Congressional Quarterly, in initially reporting the decision, painted the hand-off as a rebuke of Mica, presumably for failing to gather and hold Republican support. The speaker’s office insists that wasn’t the intent, however, and indeed an alternate narrative seems plausible: Boehner is trying to reach across the aisle.

Going bipartisan would be so unusual for House Republicans, many activists fear it's a feign or a trap. But if Boenher wanted to use the week long recess to regroup and try to shore up Republican support, he could have easily stuck with Mica, who authored the bill to Boehner’s liking and who has repeatedly bent loyally to the prevailing conservative winds in the House. Instead, the speaker tapped Bill Shuster, a moderate on transportation who hails from Pennsylvania, a half-urban, half-rural state that relies fairly heavily on rail (and which produced the pro-transit Senator Rick Santorum).

Perhaps more importantly, Bill Shuster is a Shuster. His father, Bud Shuster, chaired the House transportation committee from 1995 until he resigned from Congress in 2001—largely because a party policy on term limitations for committee heads forced him to give up his beloved chairmanship. Bill took Bud’s seat in a special election later that year.

During the six-year Shuster chairmanship, as with the six-year reign of Don Young that followed, the task of transportation lawmaking was carried out with great bipartisan comity and, not unrelated, rampant earmarking.  The chairmen got their pork—Young his infamous Alaskan bridges to nowhere and the senior Shuster the irregularly numbered Interstate 99, now the “Bud Shuster Highway”—but so did their colleagues.

The last two long-term surface transportation reauthorizations happened under these men’s watch, and in those votes and several since the players who are today taking center stage showed their colors. When Bud Shuster sponsored TEA-21 in 1998, Mica voted for it, and Boehner voted against it. When Young sponsored SAFETEA-LU in 2005, Mica and Bill Shuster voted for it, and Boehner was one of only nine who voted against it. In 2008, when the new Democratic chairman Jim Oberstar pushed through Amtrak reauthorization, Mica and Bill Shuster voted for that too, and Boehner voted against it.

To his credit, Boehner has been consistent in pining for fundamental changes in transportation funding. In 2005, sore about earmarking in SAFETEA-LU and Ohio’s status as a “donor state” (one that pays more into the Highway Trust fund than it gets back from Washington), he argued that “in a perfect world, the states would keep the taxes they collect and the federal government would only get involved in those projects that are inherently federal.”

By contrast, Mica spoke in favor of SAFETEA-LU’s increased funding, though he wanted more donor/donee equity, then he boasted of the money he brought home. In 2007, after the I-35 bridge collapse, he was thinking big, meeting with President Bush to explain the urgency of a national infrastructure effort. Shortly after, he told the Texas Transportation Summit that the nation’s infrastructure needed dramatic overhaul, even mentioning high speed rail and inland waterways, two sectors that probably weren’t represented in Texas enough for this to be considered pandering.

As we know, Mica’s excitement about high speed rail waned after the 2010 midterm elections made him chairman. He cooperated with his party leadership’s efforts to constrain the budget and defeat President Obama’s infrastructure initiatives. But Bill Shuster hasn’t been quite so loyal. He has parted ways with Boehner and Mica when necessary to support transportation funding, and he has often prevailed. In 2007, Shuster voted against an unsuccessful Republican effort to defund Amtrak by half a billion dollars; the other two voted for it. In 2008, Shuster was the only one of the three to support Oberstar’s National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act, which passed the House 367-55.

Shuster’s rhetoric  has also been maverick -- for a Republican. In 2005, when both Boehner and Mica publicly complained about the federal redistribution of state tax revenues, Shuster actually defended the doner/donee designations, and called out Mica’s home state in the process.

"It has been the wise practice in surface transportation reauthorization to take into account that some regions are saddled with greater needs than others and need a larger rate of return to maintain our national transportation system,” he said on the floor of the House.

Pennsylvania “ranks third in the amount of through truck traffic that neither originates nor terminates in the State. Pennsylvania receives little benefit from such commerce traveling through our State, yet States such as Florida, which is able to get its goods to the large Northeastern markets, benefit, while we still suffer from the constant pounding and damage caused by this through traffic.” Apparently Shuster didn’t get the memo.

Given Shuster’s moderate views and votes, it’s hard to imagine that Boenher would swap Mica for Shuster if the plan was for Republicans to hold their ground and fight. At any rate, Democrats are taking the Pennsylvanian's new prominence as a good sign. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had kind, hopeful words for Shuster. “His father I knew very well,” he told The Hill. “If his son is anything like the dad, it will help get this bill done.”

And if the son is shopping legislation that’s a little more like his dad’s, that’ll probably help too.

 

(Hat tip to the essential Project Vote Smart)

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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GOP House Works to Undo Reagan Legacy on Transportation

Thursday, February 09, 2012

President Ronald Reagan on a whistle stop train tour, 1984

There was another moment like ours, not so long ago. The economy was in recession, unemployment was high, our transportation infrastructure was in sorry shape, deficit reduction was widely considered a national priority, and the President and Congress were struggling with how to steer the nation out of the swamp it was in.

At this other moment, in 1982, President Ronald Reagan was at the helm. And as the FHWA historian Richard Weingroff writes in his riveting and comprehensive history of the episode, Reagan worked to overcome a Republican filibuster to raise the gas tax by 125%, from four to nine cents a gallon, securing capital funding for both roads and transit. Then, as now, the gas tax hadn’t been increased in twenty years, not even to keep pace with inflation.

Reagan also agreed to devote a penny—20% of the increase—to capital improvements to transit. It was this bill, The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, that created the dedicated Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund—a marriage that’s been a going policy for almost 30 years. At this point, the Highway Trust Fund has included dedicated capital funding for transit longer than it existed without one.

Of course, many contemporary Republican members of Congress identify Reagan as their ideological progenitor. But their current proposals, at least in the House, would reverse the carefully considered and hard-fought precedent their hero set.

In his first State of the Union address, that January, Reagan had initially endorsed a “New Federalist” approach to transportation that would have devolved the federal program and left the work of road-building to the states, with encouragement to privatize all but the most essential work, while relaxing environmental protections in the name of cutting red tape. He also swore against raising taxes.

But a year later, the day before he signed the STAA, Reagan explained why he’d made an exception for the gas tax. “It was a year ago that Secretary Drew Lewis presented the plan and the necessity for rebuilding our roads and our highways and our bridges, because we’re faced with the possibility of tragedy in some instances,” Reagan said. “And the proposal was, as we called it, a ‘user fee’ to differentiate this as not a tax for general revenues. This is a tax to do this particular task.”

Even in a recession, raising the gas tax—and using a portion for transit—wasn’t considered a radical agenda in 1982. AASHTO (which had only recently updated its name to add a ‘T’ for Transportation after the ‘H’ for Highways) strongly supported the tax increase and the creation of the transit account. Another advocate for a dedicated transit account argued that “the time has come for us to recognize that highways and transit are inseparable—the two modes are interdependent and complementary.” What radical put this idea forward? Federal Highway Administrator Ray A. Barnhart, a Reagan appointee from Texas.

Once his mind was made up, Reagan fought hard for the gas tax increase. Senator Jesse Helms and a handful of other Republican Senators tried to filibuster the bill until the end of the lame duck session, but Reagan flew more supportive Senators in air force planes in the days before Christmas to get it passed. (Weingroff cites this battle over the 1982 Surface Transportation Assistance Act as the genesis of a longstanding rift between Republican conservatives and moderates.)

The great communicator made it simple: the funding mechanism was sensible and fair, and it would be relatively painless compared to watching our infrastructure turn to gravel. In a November radio address, he cleverly pointed out that the tax increase “will cost the average car owner only about $30 a year. That's less than the cost of a couple of shock absorbers.” And anyway, we needed to do it, to keep “this magnificent system” worthy of our great nation. Also, by the way, it would create jobs and allow the economy to grow.

Our current leaders and legislators are certain that it’s impossible to carry this exact same message today. Presently, to avoid asking users to pay what Reagan asked Americans to pay in 1982, the House and Senate are instead twisting themselves into contortions, interpretive dances that clearly reflect other agendas beyond mobility.

The House’s widely derided transportation and energy bill uses revenue from new drilling to pay for roads, and divorces transit, biking, and pedestrian funding from the Highway Trust Fund, setting those alternative transportation modes adrift in the general fund, where its safety cannot be guaranteed. The Senate has crafted a two-year bill maintaining the transit and highway formulas, but drawing needed additional revenue from a convoluted set of funding mechanisms that give the impression of lawmakers rifling through the federal couch cushions. The bills are so fundamentally different that a conference committee compromise seems almost impossible.

For many years now transportation journalists, wonks, and stakeholders have enjoyed saying—and knowing—that their area of concern was uniquely bipartisan. Legislators and executives from both parties, at all levels of government, have been able to debate in relatively good faith, secure in the feeling that the need for good infrastructure, and the justification for government to take part in building it, were agreed-upon principles. (One prominent conservative supporter of federal transit spending? Rick Santorum, who did rather well this week.)

True, some championed rail more than others, and some favored privatization and tolls over tax financing. But it always seemed like the variations were relatively minor, at least compared to the shared dedication to the overall goals of mobility. With the introduction of the House and Senate transportation bills, that feeling has gone away, and it’s hard to know how permanent the unravelling will be. Reagan's gas tax hike happened in a lame duck session after a mid-term election. Nothing so bipartisan or moderate is likely to be openly discussed in the buildup to a Presidential showdown. Maybe Congress should consider doing what it's done best these last few years: punt.

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Rick Santorum, as Senator, Preached the Gospel of Transit

Monday, January 09, 2012

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

In March of 2005, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and its Pennsylvania counterpart (PPTA) honored Senator Rick Santorum for his dedication to public transportation. APTA president William W. Millar noted Santorum’s “tireless advocacy” and contributions on “both the national and local level.”

This recognition came shortly after Santorum appeared on Meet the Press with Joe Biden and vowed to oppose President Bush in his efforts to cut Amtrak funding. “Without substantial government funds or other intervening action, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy and shut down all of its services, leaving millions of riders and thousands of communities without access to the essential and convenient transportation that Amtrak provides,” Santorum wrote in a Philadelphia Enquirer piece later that March. Regions outside the Northeast, he admitted, needed to “take steps to become more efficient and profitable.” But in the meantime “it is critical to Pennsylvania's workers, businesses, visitors, and most specifically to the more than 3,000 Amtrak employees that we do not decrease funding for Amtrak.”

The APTA release noted that Santorum’s position on the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Finance Committee had allowed him to play “an important role in securing funding for various transportation projects throughout Pennsylvania.” And indeed it had.

Santorum’s primary challengers are now characterizing the Senator’s fondness for federal largess as a sign that he’s not a real fiscal conservative. In late December, as Santorum was surging in the Iowa polls, Rick Perry began criticizing him as “a prolific earmarker.” One Perry ad called Santorum “a porker’s best friend.” “I love Iowa pork,” Perry said in a speech. “But I hate Washington pork. Senator Santorum loaded up his bills with Pennsylvania pork and even voted for the Alaska bridge to nowhere.”

All true. But a little context, if you’d like: In 2005, earmarking was de rigueur. Congressmen and Senators brought pork back from the Washington hunt and hung it triumphantly at press conferences and shovel ceremonies. In July of 2005, when the final Senate vote was taken on the transportation funding bill that contained the “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark, only four Senators opposed it. And the Republican president signed it.

Does that mean that the earmark-baiting of the other candidates is nothing more than “pious baloney?” Well, Perry and his Texas Department of Transportation certainly had their hand out back then too. (The Governor often cited the disappointing funding stream from Washington as one reason he wanted to see his privatized Trans-Texas Corridor plan enacted.)

But who has credibility in this regard? If 96 Senators jumped off a cliff, who wouldn’t? John McCain, who was one of those four Senators who voten nay on the 2005 transportation reauthorization, who took a brave lead in criticizing the earmark-laden bill, and who is now on the stump for Romney, criticizing Santorum (and Gingrich) for earmarking.

And to the horror of The Club for Growth, Santorum says he has no regrets on earmarking. "I don't regret going out at the time and making sure that the people of Pennsylvania, who I was elected to represent, got resources back into the state after spending money,” he said recently. The Huffington Post also quoted Santorum explaining to a crowd of voters in Iowa: “In the Constitution it says who has the power to appropriate funds. Congress does. So we appropriate funds.”

Former Pennsylvania Governor and Infrastructure cheerleader Ed Rendell chimed in last week to praise Santorum’s effectiveness in funneling money home. "He understood that those type of earmarks translated into jobs and investment," Rendell said.

Indeed his support of infrastructure, particularly transit, seems to run deep. From 1984 to 1986, Santorum served as the director for the state senate transportation committee as an administrative assistant for Pennsylvania state senator J. Doyle Corman. He understood what rail meant to Pennsylvania and its cities. "The 'T' light rail line in Pittsburgh was my daily means of transportation for many years while I worked downtown,” Santorum said in 2005 when he was honored by the APTA. “I understand the importance of maintaining the various forms of public transportation for those who rely on it every day."

Midway through his first term as senator, during the drafting of the TEA-21 authorization bill, Santorum helped create the new Job Access and Reverse Commute program, which was meant to address “the unique transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income persons seeking to obtain and maintain employment.” When the authorization bill came up for renewal in 2005, Santorum appeared before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and offered a full-throated endorsement of the program—and federal transit funding in general—from a socially conservative angle.

“Robust [transit] systems are also an important component of economic development,” he said. “Throughout my tenure in Congress, one of my highest priorities has been assisting those who are transitioning from welfare to the workplace.... In my home state of Pennsylvania, the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in particular have provided access to employment for thousands of individuals through the JARC program. The creation of the program has allowed Pennsylvania to provide welfare recipients and other low-income individuals an opportunity to secure and retain employment and achieve self-sufficiency.”

Interestingly, that May of 2005, at a time when privatization was spreading and the Bush Administration was promoting state-level responsibility for transportation, Santorum offered a strenuous defense for a strong federal participation in transportation funding.

“Every State in the country has a transportation department. Why do we need a Federal transportation department?” He asked. “We need it because we have to make sure the goods that are produced in New Jersey can get to Ohio to Texas, or the goods produced in California can get to Georgia.

"The fact is it is important for us to be connected... We have a situation where we have States that shoulder a large burden when it comes to that interstate commerce, and we have other States that are the great beneficiaries.” The Federal government, he argued, should continueto redistribute national gas tax revenues disproportionately to “pass-through” states such as Pennsylvania. “Given the topography, the climate, and the congestion and traffic we bear, it would be a State that should do well under a Federal formula.”

So there you have it. Rick Santorum is a man quite comfortable with Washington’s role in redistributing tax revenue, at least when it comes to transportation. He’s a man who quite likes trains and buses, a man who sees federal spending on public transportation not as welfare, but rather as a way to help people of lesser means get to work, as economic development.

More candidate analysis:  Mitt Romney: Metro-Friendly Moderate?; Newt Gingrich: Rail Visionary, Lover of Oil; Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor Problem.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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Newt Gingrich: Rail Visionary, Lover of Oil

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Former speaker Newt Gingrich. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Flickr.

It’s hard to know for sure how former House Speaker New Gingrich might handle transportation as President. Of his Republican rivals who’ve been governor you can easily paint portraits of the metro-friendly moderate or the big-thinking privatizer. But Gingrich has never overseen a department of transportation, never appointed a transportation commissioner, never signed off on (or killed) a major project.

His Congressional record isn't terribly helpful. In the House, Gingrich didn’t seem focused on mobility issues. An analysis of his track record on Project Votesmart reveals that Gingrich did not cast a vote on many of the key transportation bills in the 1990s, including the 1998 TEA-21 reauthorization bill, which succeeded by a large margin. Newt’s famous Contract with America didn’t deal with bridges or trains or roads (the “Taking Back our Streets Act” dealt with crime) and the summary of legislative proposals that make up his newer-fangled "21st Century Contract with America" never mentions “transportation” or “infrastructure” (aside from military infrastructure).

So all we have is his rhetoric. And in that, Gingrich has had his bold moments, though. In 2007, in the months following the publication of his book A Contract with the Earth, when he was filming public service announcements with Nancy Pelosi, Gingrich was talking up “common sense environmentalism” and a green jobs revolution, dreaming of a “Hydrogen car, or a car that would get 1,000 miles to a gallon of petroleum.” He suggested offering cash prizes of a tax-free billion dollars to attract “lots of inventors other than auto companies in Detroit.” He beamed thinking about a composite materials car made in America, or a hydrogen engine made in America.

“If you look at the amount we spent to maintain military capability in the Persian Gulf,” he said, “if you had spent the same amount to create a revolution in energy, we’d almost certainly be deeply into a hydrogen economy by now.”

Gingrich has consistently been in favor of private companies doing technologically cool things for the health of America (and for profit). In his book, Real Change, he included a chapter endorsing improved rail and more modernized airports. “As the leading economy in the world,” he wrote, “America should have the best air and rail transportation in the world, but we don’t.”

Why not? Because of unions, Gingrich believes. “Unfortunately, the air traffic controller union understands that a twenty-first-century space-based air traffic control system would reduce the importance and number of air traffic controllers.” And the three reasons America hasn’t seen the kind of high-speed rail investment one saw in France, Japan, and China? “Union work rules make it impossible,” for one, Gingrich writes. For another, "regulations and litigation involved in large-scale construction...has become time consuming and expensive.” And third: “pork barrel politicians waste money subsidizing absurdly uneconomic routes.”

Gingrich identified the three corridors he believed were “very conducive to this kind of high-speed train investment,” and they may sound familiar: a system between Boston and Washington, from San Diego to San Francisco, and from Miami to Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

“I support—and I’m confident that most Americans support—a twenty-first-century rail system that is privately built, run efficiently, and capable of earning its own way,” Gingrich wrote, allowing that this “might even require an initial program of tax incentives or other help (just as the transcontinental railroad did). But it just makes sense that we the people of the United States should have a railroad system that works for us, and not for the Amtrak bureaucracy and their unions.” For non-high-speed corridors, he suggested turning the rail lines over to the states.

In 2009, Gingrich held forth with his former colleague Dick Gephardt at an event sponsored by Building America's Future and the National Governors Association (video via Streetsblog). He spoke in favor of user fees over taxes, and privatization over government bureaucracies, but agreed with BAF co-founder (and former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania) Ed Rendell that America needed a capital budget. "No American thinks they buy houses on annual appropriations," he said. He asserted that the American public understood capital investment, that we were being held back by an unimaginative government, and that we needed a program of "very large megaprojects that arouse the nation" -- specifically faster rail lines.

But as Matt Yglesias noted in May of this year, within 24 hours of announcing his candidacy, Gingrich went on the radio to defend oil companies, railing against the “anti-energy, anti-American” ideas of the far left, who “don’t understand how the real world works.”

“Liberals don’t like us liking bigger vehicles, so they want to find a way to punish us economically,” Gingrich said, accusing Obama of schadenfreude over higher gas prices. “Hit our pocketbook, make us change, because they’d like all of us to live in big cities in high rises, taking mass transit.”

One might perceive in Newt’s pro-oil posture a bit of political practicality. When selling books and not soliciting votes, he’s shown a greater imagination for an America that lives and works differently. Sometimes his imagination has run rather wild, as when he became enamored with the idea of giant space mirrors that could distribute sunlight to prevent darkness, lower crime, prevent frosts in agricultural areas -- and light the interstate highways.

Those in the transportation business seem to be likewise unsure of where Gingrich’s heart lies. Open Secrets shows that Newt has raised a paltry $19,450 from identifiable transportation-sector contributors this year. That’s just 4% of the $485,000 Romney has raised from the industry, a quarter of the haul won by Ron Paul, and $2,000 less than Rick Santorum received.

More candidate analysis: Mitt Romney: Metro-Friendly Moderate?, Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor Problem.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Mitt Romney: Metro-Friendly Moderate?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on December 6, 2011 in Paradise Valley, AZ. Photo by Gage Skidmore.


Pop quiz: What national political figure, as one of his first acts as chief executive, created a new agency tasked with coordinating housing, transportation, and energy policy in the pursuit of “smart-growth” development? Hint: in his four years as leader, this politician championed a fix-it-first infrastructure strategy and awarded taxpayer-funded grants to communities dedicated to sustainability, insisting that, “by targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.”

If you said President Barack Obama, that’s understandable—Obama also believes in fixing existing infrastructure and curbing sprawl, and he also created an agency to bring together housing, transportation, and energy policy—but that's not who we're describing.

The sprawl curber in question was, in fact, one of the the president’s potential challengers, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. In 2003, shortly after taking office, Romney created a state Office of Commonwealth Development, which—like Obama’s Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities—broke down the silos separating livability issues and made policy out of smart-growth ideas.

The OCD’s criteria (PDF) for public grants read like a new urbanist handbook. Successful projects should “provide transportation choice,” by being “walkable to public transportation,” the guide said. A good plan “reduces dependence on automobiles by providing increased pedestrian and bicycle access.”

But those were the ideas championed by the governor of a fairly liberal northeastern state, not those of a presidential hopeful vying for the nomination of an increasingly conservative party. Recently, Romney has been reminding debate audiences, opponents, and interviewers almost constantly that he doesn’t believe that what was good for Massachusetts is necessarily a prescription for the nation. He’s proud of his record, he says, but his emphasis has changed.

For one, he’s become an energy hawk, calling for the immediate approval of the Keystone oil pipeline. “Oil is obviously one of our most crucial energy resources and the single most important fuel for our transportation needs,” says his online campaign platform (PDF), which calls for increased domestic oil production and an amendment to the Clean Air Act to exclude the regulation of carbon.

This is the same Mitt Romney who in the spring of 2004 unveiled Massachusetts' first Climate Protection Plan (PDF), saying: “The same policies that protect the climate also promote energy efficiency, smart business practices, and improve the environment in which our citizens live and work. For Massachusetts, promoting climate protection in the Commonwealth and throughout our nation also promotes Massachusetts businesses that are at the forefront of the new markets for renewable energy technologies.”

Romney has made the creation of jobs a central pillar of his campaign, but he’s keen to trim the federal payroll—in the transportation sector, among others. In late September Romney opined in the New Hampshire Union Leader (a paper that went on to endorse Newt Gingrich) that “Amtrak is a classic example” of the many “functions that the private sector can perform better than the public sector.”

This conviction may come in part from a transition he witnessed as Governor. Just before Romney took office, Amtrak declined to bid to renew its operations of Boston’s commuter rail system, and a newly formed consortium, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, took over the nation’s fifth-largest regional rail network in the summer of 2003.

But the deal hardly serves as a success story for privatization. Mass Bay, as it is known, is paid more than $250 million a year to manage the railroad, and the company came under harsh scrutiny recently when it came to light that the MBTA, the public transportation authority that funds that contract, waived millions of dollars in penalties the private company was supposed to have paid for slow service. Despite Mass Bay’s performance issues, the consortium’s contract was extended for two years in January.

Romney played no role in awarding or extending the Mass Bay contract, and he made no moves to privatize city trains and buses operated by the MBTA. Instead, when the T showed signs of fiscal trouble in 2003, Romney signed a law to allow fare hikes. "It was just a slap in the face," Democratic State Representative Gloria L. Fox told the Boston Globe. "It just goes to show that the poor pay more." But Romney stopped short of advocating increases in ticket prices. He ordered an audit of the T’s finances, and suggested strongly that they look for ways to increase ridership and improve service before asking riders to pay more.

Governor Romney took a similarly business-like approach to the state’s highways. In 2004, he signed a reform bill to streamline and consolidate the operations of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the state Highway Department. The move was philosophically similar to recent proposals, by both parties in Washington, to simplify project selection and funding mechanisms in federal transportation.

All in all, Romney remained a metro-friendly moderate during his tenure as Governor. In 2005, mid-term, he unveiled a twenty-year, $31-billion state transportation plan that re-emphasized his “fix-it-first” convictions, directing “seventy-five percent of all new capital spending toward maintaining and improving the Commonwealth’s existing transportation network.” Hailing the “post-Big-Dig world,” Romney’s plan was modally balanced. Twelve billion went to “reconstructing, decongesting and expanding roadways across the Commonwealth, including all major choke points,” while nine billion went to “achieving a state of good repair on the MBTA’s aging assets.”

Will Romney’s smart-growth past be thrown back at him as “right-wing social engineering”? Will his ruminations about a private Amtrak take firmer root? Will he continue his anti-Federal tack and declare transportation the prerogative of the states? It’s hard to know. Perhaps it won’t come up much in the primaries—it hasn’t so far.

But some are betting that Mitt’s a transportation man, deep down. According to an analysis of campaign contributions from the transportation sector this cycle, Romney comes in second among politicians nationwide (including the President), with $485,626 as of press time. The leader, Texas Governor Rick Perry, tops Romney by less than $5,000, and the two are way out in front. House Speaker John Boehner, in third place, has raised less than half the haul of either man.

More candidate analysis: Newt Gingrich: Rail Visionary, Lover of OilRick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor Problem.

(Special hat tip to blogger Mike Laub whose obsessive catalog of old Romney press releases provided a wealth of information.)

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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Choose Your Own Rail Adventure

Monday, November 28, 2011

“I remember the first time I saw a train go by,” a choked-up grown man says in the video trailer for Railworks’s Train Simulator 2012. He goes on, with a weepy nostalgia that rivals the treacliest Chevy commercial. “My dad took me to the crossing one hot summer evening..... I could see the engineer in his cab. Gotta be the best seat in the world.”

Though Amtrak ridership reached a record high, and House Transportation Chairman John Mica has recently warmed to the idea of Amtrak-led high speed rail in the Northeast, it looks like the American train renaissance that some were expecting may take a while. The government is tightening its belt, if you hadn’t heard, and new railroads aren't exactly an easy sell. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some vicarious train enjoyment—or the perfect Christmas gift for that hard-to-shop-for uncle, nephew, or Amtrak-loving Vice President—you might consider a virtual-reality model train.

There are a number of computerized railroading experiences available. Sid Meier, the purveyor of the popular Civilization series, offers a tycoon game called Railroads! There’s another program called TrainPlayer. But the grandpappy of them all is Railworks’s Train Simulator 2012. (Sad news for loyal apple users: most of these are available only for Windows. The only program I could find native to the Mac was SteamTRAIN, which is quite frankly lame.)

Train Simulator 2012, which was released in October, is impressively powerful and complicated—You can drive diesel or steam trains in and out of stations, add and subtract cars, move freight. It’s a little strange to get the hang of it, but the program offers tutorials to help you learn your way. As you pilot your iron horse, you can choose between a variety of views. You can sit inside the engine cab, inside the passenger car (with bored virtual people staring out the window), watch the train go by from an overhead “helicopter” position, or trackside.

Depending on your aesthetic or emotional needs, you can vary the weather, build your own environments, or purchase separately ninety add-ons that let you choose from different rolling stock and routes including the Acela, the Pennsylvanian Horseshoe Curve, German High Speed trains, the British Hatchel Hill quarry. Just before halloween, Railworks offered an inspired expansion pack called Trains vs. Zombies, where you try to reach a hidden haven deep inside Paddington station (Hint: don’t pick up the dark gray stumbling passengers.) Coming soon? A Donner Pass situation, which may or may not include scenes of cannibalism. .

“Years later, I take my son down to the same crossing,” the Train Simulator trailer voice says. “I know now that he wants to drive trains too.... You know what?  Now we can. Each and every day, as many times as we want, whenever we want.” You don’t even have to pass a surface transportation reauthorization bill through Congress first. (Though that would be an interesting role-playing game!) The program can be had for about the cost of a one-way ticket from New York to Philadelphia.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.


 

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ANALYSIS: High Speed Rail Naysayer Scott Says Nay to California Costs

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Florida Governor Rick Scott wasted no time making hay of the formal increase in cost projections for high speed rail in California. “The news today out of California that High Speed Rail cost estimates have now tripled to the $100 billion range reinforces that Florida made the right decision earlier this year to protect taxpayers from just this sort of boondoggle,” Scott said in a statement. “As I said at the time, High Speed Rail would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits. I’m glad Florida is no longer entangled in the high speed spending web.” 

Florida Governor Rick Scott. Photo by Gage Skidmore

 

But bullet train advocates contacted by Transportation Nation were just as quick to call out the Governor for playing politics. “As usual, Rick Scott is putting ideology way ahead of the facts,” wrote Kevin Brubaker, who manages the Midwest High-Speed Rail Network Project of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago. “Florida’s high-speed rail proposal was designed as a public-private partnership with the private sector bearing all the risk for cost overruns.  Private firms were ready to bid on this project, gambling their potential profits against potential cost increases. But Governor Scott never allowed the private sector to do what it does best. Instead, he canceled the project before private firms could bid and before his own government completed their analysis of the project.”

Indeed, as we reported in February, at least eight teams were prepared to answer the Request for Qualifications for the Tampa-to-Orlando line, and Florida had been expected to issue that RFQ within a month of Scott’s cancellation. Nora Friend, the Vice President of Public Affairs and Business Development at the Spanish rail company Talgo, told me then that, factoring in the strength of Disney tourism and the chance to extend the line to Miami. “We feel that the project warrants the risk.”

At any rate, it’s hard to compare the two projects. A full sixty-five percent of the cost estimate increase in California had to do with the number of viaducts and tunnels needed to pass through the mountainous areas of the Pacheco Pass, Tehachapi Mountains, and the San Gabriel Mountains. Those geographical features—and therefore the costs associated with them—would not be a concern between Tampa and Orlando.

What to critics was a weakness of the Florida segment—its relatively short route along what was already a major interstate—was for proponents and potential bidders a strength: The state of Florida already owned the needed right of way, so the engineering and routing challenges were not nearly as complex or unknown as those in California and elsewhere.

Likewise, some of the California project’s major liabilities—its 400-mile length, its passage through major urban population centers, its flexibility as to route—are tied to strengths. The CHSRA’s press release hinted at this when it cast even the new price as a bargain. "As the state’s population grows from 38 million people today to 60 million people by mid-century, it is estimated that without high speed rail California will need as much as $171 billion to meet its transportation needs,” the Authority said, citing “an additional 2,300 lane-miles of highways, 4 runways, and 115 airline gates.”

“With this business plan, the project has grown more expensive, but the plans are also becoming more realistic,” Petra Todorovich, Director of the America 2050 initiative for the Regional Plan Association, told Transportation Nation today. “We now have better information about phasing, costs, ridership, and ticket prices. It is essential that both supporters and opponents monitor the project closely to ensure that this level of transparency persists throughout the life of the project.”

Cost estimates by category for California High Speed rail. Black is the 2009 estimate. Yellow is the new low end and blue is the new high estimate.

Good information and transparency was all that Florida high speed rail advocates wanted from Rick Scott, and the Governor wouldn’t give them either. No matter the conclusions Scott or others draw from the news out of Sacramento this week, the CHSRA has certainly provided a level of transparency that exceeds almost any Californians’ level of curiosity.

Along with the new price tag, the California High-Speed Rail Authority released a set of detailed documents, including a 42-page report detailing the breakdown of cost changes and the reason for them ("There has also been an expansion of key cost items (viaducts, tunnels) consistent with more detailed design and additional geotechnical information.") and a 31-page cost benefit analysis ("The anticipated quantifiable benefits from the CA HSR project exceed their anticipated costs regardless of the phasing or the high/low cost scenarios presented.")

Seventy-three pages of detailed information is unlikely to impress anyone who’s already made their minds up about high speed rail. Whether their contents will mean more to California voters than $98.5 billion remains to be seen.

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, which describes the Trans-Texas Corridor battle in great detail. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor Problem

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Governor Rick Perry speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

For Texas Governor Rick Perry, Republican Primary debates have been a little rocky. So far he's been made to answer for mandating an HPV vaccine, and for granting undocumented immigrants in-state tuition breaks. Equally vexing for Perry may be the Corridor question, which will require the same difficult maneuvering between the choices he made as governor of a large, diverse state, and the the choices that appeal to Republican primary voters whose appetite for big government, or any kind of government, is at one of its lowest points in modern history.

Eventually, Perry will be asked to defend his Trans-Texas Corridor program, an infrastructure initiative that was expensive, disruptive to private property, and proposed at least partly in the name of facilitating NAFTA trade (though not, as some protesters would have it, part of a plot to dissolve America's borders).

Perry may succeed in demonizing the federal government in cheering for states' rights, but he may have to defend criticism that he ran his state (which likes to think of itself as a nation) in a manner that threatened local decision-making just the same.

Perry first floated his Texas-sized transportation plan in 2002, during his first campaign for Governor (he had already ascended to the position in 2000 with the departure of Governor George W. Bush to the White House). The Corridor was “the largest engineering project ever proposed for Texas, a world-class concept,” a now-infamous report (pdf) explained. “The Trans Texas Corridor is an all-Texas transportation network of corridors up to 1,200 feet wide." The criss-crossing network, totaling 4,000 miles, "will include separate highway lanes for passenger vehicles and trucks, high-speed passenger rail and commuter and freight rail. The corridor also will have a dedicated utility zone.”

The TTC, as it came to be known, was Perry’s and his Department of Transportation’s answer to the challenges of a growing state economy. Following its cover page, the report offered an epigraph quoting Sam Houston, who, as a U.S. Senator in 1852, said that Transportation was “of vital importance, and we must all lay our hands to it as a great and mighty work of national interest and concernment, divested of everything sectional or local in its character. If its accomplishment is to be secured, it must be done with united hands and united hearts, with reference alone to the public good and its accomplishment on the most reasonable terms that the national resources will justify.”

It was the “divested of everything sectional or local” part of this mission statement that caused Perry the most trouble. The Trans-Texas Corridor would cost an estimated $183.5 Billion, TxDOT’s report said, but the proposal included changes to state law that would encourage the private sector to undertake these costs and, in return, to make a profit from tolling the corridors and building any number of service facilities along them.

The necessary enabling legislation sailed through in 2003, while the state capitol was distracted by a battle over redistricting. Evidently, few legislators knew what the bill contained. By the time TxDOT began holding public meetings about the Corridor, in early 2004, the sudden possibility that private companies, some of them foreign, might exercise eminent domain to build huge swaths of infrastructure for profit took voters by surprise. Local county toll authorities in Dallas and Houston began complaining that the state was bullying them into contracts with private companies, and voters began pressuring their legislators to repeal the law that made those contracts possible.

Perry had installed his friend and fellow former legislator Ric Williamson as Chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, and Williamson (now deceased) took the kind of straight-talk, tough-love approach to transportation policy that Perry now seems to be taking on Social Security. The gas-tax system wasn't sustainable, and people needed to know it. Williamson didn’t refer to public highway funding as a “ponzi scheme,” but he did tour the state telling local officials that they had to choose between “toll roads, slow roads, or no roads.” “There is no road fairy,” both men were fond of saying.

Protesters march in Austin at the "Don&squot;t Tag Texas" rally in March, 2007. Photo by Matt Dellinger

Protesters in Austin at the "Don't Tag Texas" rally in March, 2007. Photo by Matt Dellinger

The public didn’t much enjoy the Perry Administration’s approach. David and Linda Stall, two citizens from Fayetteville, formed an online group called CorridorWatch and held a series of meetings across the state to educate the public on the details of the plan. They succeeded in whipping up outrage that at times exceeded their own: Their public appearances became rallying points for a new coalition of rural landowners, anti-“North American Union” conspiracy theorists, Ron Paul supporters, and members of the John Birch Society. The next session of the semi-annual state legislature, in 2005, was dominated by efforts to repeal the Corridor plan (which was laid to its final rest this year). State legislators, who were complicit in passing enabling legislation if not in setting the my-way-or-the-highway tone of Perry’s policy, neutered the Governor’s transportation agenda and humbled TxDOT. In the next gubernatorial election, in 2006, Perry’s unpopularity inspired independent challenges by Kinky Friedman and Carol Keeton Strayhorn (who as state comptroller had fought the Corridor), but in the end Perry won a plurality of just 39%.

Though Perry has come to embrace—and be embraced by—the conservative Tea Party movement, the motley crew that assembled to take down the Trans-Texas Corridor might be seen as its beginnings. (In fact, there were local anti-corridor groups that called themselves the Austin Toll Party and the San Antonio Toll Party.) For those who object to top-down transportation planning in America, Perry’s performance in Texas raises the question of whether starving the federal program might only multiply the problem by fifty.

Candidate Perry has yet to articulate his current vision for transportation in America, but it would seem he's equipped to do so: His campaign's policy and strategy director is Deidre Delisi, Perry's former chief of staff whom he appointed as chair of the Texas Transportation Commission in 2008, after Williamson's death. As chair (a five-year appointment) Delisi has presided over the dismantling of the Trans-Texas Corridor effort and the creation of a kinder, gentler TxDOT more committed to honoring local input.

Back in February 2005, the Governor seemed receptive to raising his state’s gasoline tax by pegging it to inflation. Evoking Sam Houston’s rousing call to pursue “a great and mighty work of national interest” would seem to suggest Perry shares with President Obama an appetite for big, bold infrastructure building. He clearly believes, or once did,  that the transportation system could use a heavy dose of additional investment—across multiple modes.

On the other hand, in 2009, he spoke out vehemently against federal stimulus, and even mused aloud that the “federal budget mess” might inspire Texans to secede from the union. According to Perry, when Texas joined the United States in 1845, he said, “one of the deals was we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kinda thinking about that again.”

Perry had his state history a little wrong. The annexation treaty did not allow for secession. It allowed Texas, if it later chose, to split into four different states—something which the local city-states of Dallas and Houston, who felt manhandled by Perry, might have longed for back in 2004.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, which describes the Trans-Texas Corridor battle in great detail. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Mica's Love-Hate Relationship with Infrastructure Finance

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

 

It was only minutes after President Barack Obama delivered his jobs speech to a joint session of Congress last Thursday night that House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica (R-Fla) was dismissing outright one of the President’s main proposals. “I’m strongly opposed to any type of a new federal infrastructure bank,” Mica told Todd Zwillich after the speech. “We’ve already had experience with some of these federal grant programs that requires Washington bureaucrats, Washington red tape, Washington approvals and then bowing and scraping to Washington.”

There are many kinds of potential infrastructure banks, of course, and indeed some lawmakers—including Mica’s Democratic predecessor, James Oberstar—imagined a bank as the grant-making group of technocrats Mica abhors. Others, however, have suggested that a federal infrastructure bank should act... well, something like a bank: It should loan money independently of politics with revenue generation in mind.

In his speech last Thursday, Obama telegraphed a few clues that he was imagining the latter type (my italics for emphasis): “No more earmarks. No more boondoggles. No more bridges to nowhere. We’re cutting the red tape that prevents some of these projects from getting started as quickly as possible. And we’ll set up an independent fund to attract private dollars and issue loans based on two criteria: how badly a construction project is needed and how much good it will do for the economy.”

The President went on to say that, “This idea came from a bill written by a Texas Republican and a Massachusetts Democrat,” a reference to the Building and Upgrading Infrastructure for Long-Term Development, or BUILD Act, sponsored by Senators John Kerry and Kay Bailey Hutchison. Since revealed, the infrastructure bank provision of the American Jobs Act is almost a cut-and-paste from the BUILD Act. Both would create an “American Infrastructure Financing Authority” that would “provide direct loans and loan guarantees to facilitate infrastructure projects that are both economically viable and of regional or national significance” and are backed by “tolls, user fees, or other dedicated revenue sources.”

Again, Chairman Mica opposes this. What does he support? The expansion of a program called TIFIA, which stands for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. And what does TIFIA provide? Direct loans, loan guarantees and standby lines of credit "for qualified projects of regional and national significance" "with tolls and other forms of user-backed revenue."

By now you've noticed that the Kerry-Hutchison infrastructure bank (which Mica opposes) bears a striking resemblance to the already-popular TIFIA program (which Mica supports). But there are some differences:

  • The program that Mica supports helps the public and private sectors build transportation infrastructure, while the program Mica strongly opposes would help these same sectors build transportation, water, or energy infrastructure.
  • The mechanism that Mica supports can loan up to 33 percent of an eligible project’s total costs, while the mechanism Mica opposes can loan up to 50 percent.
  • Mica’s reauthorization proposal (pdf) from July set aside $6 billion to the program that Mica supports, while Obama and Kerry and Hutchison want to set aside $10 billion for the program that Mica opposes.
  • The program that Mica opposes because it would be run by “Washington bureaucrats” would in fact be run by a revolving group of seven people appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, no more than four of whom could be from the same political party; the program that Mica  supports is run entirely by executive branch bureaucrats working under the Secretary of Transportation.

Which of these key differences between the infrastructure bank and TIFIA causes Chairman Mica to hate one and love the other? Mica spokesperson Justin Harclerode acknowledged this was a good question, but could only re-emphasize the contrast in positions without explaining it. “You’re right that Chairman Mica supports TIFIA. We know that TIFIA works, and he plans to capitalize TIFIA more than in the past,” he emailed. “There have been various [infrastructure bank] proposals, but we just don’t believe that creating another government-sponsored enterprise like Fannie or Freddie is the way to go.”

Meanwhile, are there other TIFIA lovers out there who are infrastructure bank haters? Are we missing something? I’m looking for wonky insight. Don't tell me this is just partisan posturing!

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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Is the Indiana Toll Road Operator in Danger of Default?

Friday, July 29, 2011

(Matt Dellinger – Transportation Nation) For the last month, while national news coverage has focused on the federal debt ceiling and the threat of a historic default, transportation watchers have been nervously contemplating the possible failure of the largest toll road privatization from the last decade.

Indiana Toll Road Concession Company, a 50/50 consortium made up of the Spanish operator Cintra and the Australian bank Macquarie, paid $3.8 billion dollars in 2006 for a 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road. The bid, made at the height of the economy and in the first blush of real PPP highway investment in America, exceeded that of the nearest competitor by a billion dollars. In what seemed like significant serendipity, the money changed hands on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which initiated construction of the Interstate highway system. The sum was so large that it had to be sent in several wire transfers.

At the time, critics of the plan complained that the lease of a public asset for profit amounted to a corporate giveaway. But proponents lectured that the road would never be worth that amount in public hands, and pointed out that any potential for gain came along with some significant risks.

The 2008 banking crisis and resulting recession have proven them right. A month ago, on the five-year anniversary of the lease, Debtwire, a subscription-only wire service operated by London Financial Times, estimated that the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company was in danger of defaulting on its debt as soon as early next year. With the economy in a slump, traffic and revenues were well below the company’s projections.

Mitch Daniels, the Governor of Indiana, who spent significant political capital to ink the deal, gloated to the Associated Press. “They overpaid,” he said. "That's why you hold an auction. Sometimes you hit the jackpot."

Michael Lindenberger, the transportation reporter for the Dallas Morning News, immediately picked up on the report and Bloomberg Businessweek soon followed. For some, the mere specter of default was cause enough for worry. National and state leaders from across the political spectrum have  championed public-private partnerships as a way to help us “do more with less.” A major default could make such deals seem riskier, and might mitigate the excitement among banks to invest.

Aware of these reports, Cintra US put out a press release earlier this week, in which Patrick Rhode, vice president of corporate affairs, insisted that the concessionaire was on solid financial footing. "The Indiana Toll Road project is fulfilling all of its financial obligations and payments, and will continue to do so," he said. "In public private partnerships, the underlying financial condition of the investor is key, and in our case extremely robust, with net cash position at our parent company level [Ferrovial] and available capacity to invest of over $1.5 billion."

Cintra's business, it should be noted, is built on patient investment: The lease term is more than double that of a thirty-year mortgage, and allows for many economic ups and downs. But is turbulence for Cintra enough to limit the investment appetite of other banks?  We’ll be watching this story, and will have more thoughts shortly on what default would look like — and what it might mean.

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Carmageddon: Does Los Angeles Need More Lanes?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Matt Logue's photo illustration of an empty I-405 through Los Angeles. Visit www.mlogue.com.

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) – This weekend’s “Carmageddon,” the fallout expected from a complete shutdown of 10 miles of Interstate 405 through the Sepulveda Pass between downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, has taken the shape of a summer blockbuster. It’s going to be big, suspenseful, action-packed, life-changing. Except instead of a must-see, Carmageddon is this season’s must-avoid.

Listen to the Matt Dellinger and L.A.-based journalist Alyssa Walker on the Takeaway here.

The brouhaha derives from a $1 billion effort to add a single carpool lane to the Interstate, which first requires the tearing-down and reconstruction of the Mullholland bridge that crosses it and cramps it. That demolition is why the road must be closed completely for the weekend. Of course, even on a good day, the 405 is considered taboo by locals who can avoid it. The half million cars that routinely drive the 405 ever weekend will need to find other routes, or not leave the garage, the prospect of either is what the city is bracing for.

The city’s transit agency will be temporarily waiving fares in an effort to encourage behavior that is, well, alien to most Angelinos. And Jet Blue offered—and sold out of—special $4 tickets between Burbank and Long Beach, the absurdity of which we won’t even attempt to detail. Anyway, others have captured the mania well, as one can see from LA Weekly's arch FAQ and this amusing video collage (with bad language) concocted by Good magazine.

The closing of one of the highway-happy city’s great arteries has clearly hit a nerve, and its not hard to understand why. Just as Y2K scare tapped into our country’s latent unease about increasingly digital world, the closure of the 405 exposes Los Angeles’ complete dependency on its bloated freeway network. (For a wonderful historical perspective on the 405’s place in Los Angeles landscape, see Mike Anton’s retrospective in the Los Angeles Times. For gripping photo illustrations of empty LA Streets, check out the work of animation supervisor Matt Logue, or even buy a print.)

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the LA Times, dished out a little schadenfreude, but wondered whether the scene would play out so terribly after all: “Still, it's not as though L.A. has not been through this before. When the 10 Freeway was shut down for three months after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, drivers adjusted and life went on. Longtime Angelenos still talk about how light traffic was during the 1984 Summer Olympics, despite predictions of regionwide gridlock.”

I spoke on an infrastructure panel with Hawthorne this spring at the LA Times Festival of Books, and saw him draw gasps and angry looks when he suggested that Los Angeles should join other cities in tearing down elevated stretches of freeways in favor of surface boulevards with park-like walkable retail districts. It wouldn’t be such a drastic change, he quipped, “The 405 is basically a park already.”

Highway-to-Boulevard conversions might be a far reach for LA, but widespread transit improvements and innovative congestion relief measures are already underway around town. Last week, the city broke ground on a pilot conversion of 25 miles of existing carpool lanes to tolled “ExpressLanes.” On long swaths of the 10 and the 110, HOV lanes (High Occupancy Vehicle) will become HOT lanes (High Occupancy Toll). Solo drivers will be able to pay anywhere between a quarter to $1.40 per mile to drive the open lanes during peak hours. When the option presents itself in 2013, the city is projecting a first year take of $20 million in tolls.

Nearby Orange County, as it happens, is home to the first HOT lanes in the country. In December of 1995, managed toll lanes opened along California 91, the Riverside freeway. Their success has led many to believe that HOT lanes have great potential. We are regularly reminded (pdf) of their virtues by the Libertarian likes of Robert Poole at the California-based Reason Foundation, and they’ve been recently deployed in places as geographically and politically varied as on the Katy Freeway in Houston and around the Beltway in Washington, DC.

These managed lanes are priced according to demand, either dynamically or with set schedules, and they let eager drivers choose to pay a toll that can in turn be spent subsidizing buses that now have a congestion-free lane to travel. Best of all, the underlying philosophy is more sound. Pricing current capacity more aggressively to encourage more efficient use holds more promise than constantly trying to build ahead of demand, a folly that even Los Angeles recognizes as impossible.

Marc Littman, a spokesman for the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority, told the Associated Press that the new HOT lane conversions were the future for southern California. "It's very difficult to build new freeways in the Los Angeles area — we're just built out,” he said. “So the idea is to better manage the freeways that we have, to squeeze more capacity out of them.” Freeways aren’t free, he insisted. You pay with money, or you pay with traffic.

Metro spokesman Rick Jager agreed. He told KTLA, "We don't have the money to build new freeways. We don't have the land to build new freeways, so this is a way that we can better manage what we already have."

In time, maybe the new 405 lane will undergo a similar transformation. Already, Metro is counting it as a transit project, because "potential project alternatives could include light rail, bus rapid transit service on the I-405 carpool lanes with bus-only on and off ramps, peak-hour bus rapid transit-only shoulder lanes, or a transit/toll facility." But in the short-term, of course, the city is focused on the benefits to cars, the alleged improvement in traffic flow and air quality that may come, very temporarily, from having one more lane.

Without "project alternatives" like those mentioned, the widening will probably just mean more cars. But if the lesson being taught elsewhere in the city gets learned, Carmageddon may be the last of a dying breed of highway capacity projects. If we’re lucky, there won’t be a sequel.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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New Loop Around Memphis Moves Ahead

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation)  In late June, the Mississippi DOT broke ground on another small piece of I-269 -- a new, wide loop a few miles to the north around Memphis, Tennessee. The outer ring highway, twenty-five miles and $669 million worth of which will traverse Mississippi, is part of the Interstate 69 project, sometimes called the “NAFTA Highway.” The loop is Mississippi’s largest active highway project, and I-69 is the nation’s.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez (far right) helps break ground on the I-269 project in Northern Mississippi (Photograph from USDOT Fast Lane blog).

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez was there, in tie and shirtsleeves, to help shovel ceremonial dirt and to deliver remarks that summed up the sometimes-schizophrenic nature of America’s investment in new road infrastructure.

I-69, Mendez said, will “spur development and economic growth throughout the state,” while also “reducing congestion so people can spend less time in their cars and more time doing things they enjoy.”

This vision of new highways as congestion reduction is, many believe, bunk—especially when paired with the assertion that it will bring enough new traffic to spur economic development. The section of I-69 through Tennessee and Mississippi has met remarkably little organized opposition in the twenty years since it was first proposed, but several organizations around Memphis have spoken out against the new loop for just these reasons. As Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis blog put it, “The blind pursuit of more lanes and more roads without the fuller context for community in time creates an incomplete plan for transportation and replicates the same mistaken policies of the past.”

With transportation funds on the chopping block, it’s gotten harder to justify new roads (or faster trains) with speculative thoughts of economic development. A report released in May by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation (a supporter of Transportation Nation) called out Mississippi as trailing behind other states when it came to spending and policy decisions.

“Mississippi aims to ‘provide a transportation system that encourages and supports Mississippi’s economic development’ and ‘ensure that transportation system development is sensitive to human and natural environmental concerns,’” the fact sheet (pdf) on the state read, “but it does not have performance measures to gauge progress in those areas.”

On the other hand, it’s hard to root against any plan that might light an economic spark in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, and to their credit, local officials in northern Mississippi have been emphasizing transit and compact development and other “livability” issues in their copious public meetings about I-269.

Is I-269 a good investment? Give us your thoughts in the comments section!

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Texas Highways: Faster, Firmer, Freer?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

(Matt Dellinger – Transportation Nation) On June 17th, the same day Texas Governor Rick Perry vetoed a ban on texting while driving, calling it “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults,” he signed another transportation bill that would allow higher speeds and designated lanes for heavier trucks on state roads. Yee-haw!

Highways in Houston. (Photo by Matt Dellinger)

House Bill 1201, now law, gives the Texas Transportation Commission latitude to allow trucks exceeding current weight restrictions “if supported by an engineering and traffic study that includes an analysis of the structural capacity of bridges and pavements, current and projected traffic patterns and volume, and potential effects on public safety.” The megatrucks won't be able to drive on Interstate Highways, which are still under the purview of the federal government.

The Commission can also now raise speed limits to 85 miles per hour on state highways, if “the commission determines, after an engineering and traffic investigation, that the established speed limit is reasonable and safe for that part of the highway system.”

(If you're driving a truck, however heavy or fast, please wear your seatbelt, TxDOT says.)

Those changes, though, were relatively minor pieces of a bill mostly devoted to undoing one of Perry’s great transportation innovations. The new law, “An Act relating to repeal of authority for the establishment and operation of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” was co-authored by Lois Kolkhorst, a fellow Republican who led the legislative charge against Perry’s ambitious plan to build multi-modal privatized corridors across the state.

Before the tea party uprising, Perry’s corridor concept caused a ruckus that found land-rights and budget-hawk conservatives marching side by side with John Birchers and lefty environmentalists.

The “TTC,” as it came to be know, has suffered many deaths. In January 2009, TxDOT tried to throw out the toxic brand name, but Perry continued to stand up for the concept of toll roads—and even gas tax hikes. "The name 'Trans-Texas Corridor' is over with. We’re going to continue to build roads in the state of Texas," Perry said. "Our options are fairly limited, due to Washington’s ineffectiveness from the standpoint of being able to deliver dollars, or for the Legislature to raise the gas tax," he said.

In October 2009, TxDOT made the backpedalling official when they put through a “no-build” recommendation on the first proposed Trans-Texas Corridor segment, a parallel to I-35, the comprehensive development of which was being handled, controversially, by a Spanish firm, Cintra.

This latest bill roots out every mention of the Corridor in the state code. As Austin American-Statesman’s transportation columnist, Ben Wear, put it, “The Legislature dropped a house on it, then melted it with water just to be sure.”

Perry signed it. Probably happily. The exorcism might help clear the path for a presidential run.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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