Forget the fight over fuel efficiency standards. An even more controversial measure is on the horizon — the transportation reauthorization bill. It only comes up for debate every six years and could transform the way we commute and travel. Here to explain the behemoth transportation bill is Congressman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Eugene, Oregon.
"We’ve really been living off the legacy of the Eisenhower era ... And we haven’t even done a very good job of taking care of that legacy." —Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio on transportation reform
Andrea Bernstein: Yesterday, President Obama announced new fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, raising them to 35 miles per gallon by 2016.
Recording of President Obama: In the past, an agreement such as this would’ve been considered impossible. It’s no secret that these are folks who have occasionally been at odds for years, even decades. In fact, some of the groups here have been embroiled in lawsuits against one another.
Andrea Bernstein: But as contentious as the fight to raise fuel standards has been, new measures won’t reduce global warming if Americans continue to drive the way they do. And so an even more controversial measure is on the horizon: the once every six years transportation reauthorization bill. Here to explain it is Congressman Pete DeFrazio, a Democrat from Eugene, Oregon. Thanks for joining us this morning.
Rep. Peter DeFazio: Thank you. Good morning.
Andrea Bernstein: Congressman, the big question that is on everybody’s mind who’s paying attention to this, is whether there’s going to be a real break with previous American transportation policy, which has always favored roads and transit over driving. How’s it looking?
Rep. Peter DeFazio: Oh, absolutely, there’s going to be a break if Chairman [Jim] Oberstar [D-Minn.] and I have anything to say about it. And we’ve met with leadership and they’re encouraging us to move forward. We’ve really been living off the legacy of the Eisenhower era, and have not substantially revisited our transportation policy except for some tweaks here and there over the last 50 years. And we haven’t even done a very good job of taking care of that legacy. I mean, the system is in terrible shape, 160,000 bridges are in need of a dramatic repair, road services are bad, congestion is terrible, Americans waste $80 billion a year caught in traffic. We need a 21st century transportation system, and we intend to lead people there.
Andrea Bernstein: You’ve gotten in maybe a little bit of trouble early on when you were an early critic of the Obama administration for what you characterized as maybe a wavering commitment to traffic. That was back, if I recall correctly, late January. Do you think things have changed in the last several months with the Obama administration? Are you less of a critic now?
Rep. Peter DeFazio: That was during the so-called stimulus debate.
Andrea Bernstein: Are you saying so-called debate, or so-called stimulus?
Rep. Peter DeFazio: Well, I think so-called stimulus. I think it was a wasted opportunity. There was over $300 billion in tax cuts which do little or nothing to put people back to work, get the economy on track. And a fraction of that was actually invested and spent on the future of our transportation system, the infrastructure which we know puts people to work, we know improves our productivity, we know if done right will get people out of traffic and into more efficient options, and that was a time that could’ve been better.
Andrea Bernstein: So what’s happening now? Do you see the White House as being more aggressive on this issue?
Rep. Peter DeFazio: Well, the President and I have had a couple of exchanges over this.
Andrea Bernstein: Yeah? Friendly?
Rep. Peter DeFazio: Yeah, he’s always friendly. He’s wonderful and very intelligent human being. The Secretary of Transportation [Ray LaHood] and I have met several times. They haven’t raised any yellow flags or anything about what we’re doing. They say that they want something that enhances livability, deals with these major problems. They are particularly interested in transit, and there’s a tremendous amount of work to do there, so I’m encouraged and I told the President when I saw him a couple weeks ago we’re going to give him a product he’s really going to like.
Andrea Bernstein: So tell us about this bill. What is going to look like? What’s in it? How big will it be?
Rep. Peter DeFazio: Well it’s going to be big, and we’re dealing with big problems. The American Society of Civil Engineers and other experts out there, two commissions, have said, “Look, the system’s falling apart.” You have to put a new emphasis on preservation of the system, but at the same time you have to begin a 21st century system that gives people, particularly in congested urban areas transit alternatives that don’t exist today to help them get out of their cars, get out of congestion, mitigate all that wasted fuel in time. And at the same time we have to deal with freight mobility. Before the crash, ships backed up into the ocean trying to get their cargo unloaded. Now they move that through L.A. and other ports across America.
John Hockenberry: Congressman, let’s talk some naked politics about how some of that might actually be done. Your college, James Oberstar on the transportation committee, wants a sort of GPS style tracking system to determine how far vehicles have gone, possibly developing a revenue source to tax or to have people who drive the most support the system. Do you think people who may have EZ Pass tokens on their cars, or may have some of this electronic equipment already in their cars, are going to make the leap to some federally-monitored satellite system that monitors transportation around the United States?
Rep. Peter DeFazio: No. Not in the short term. And the chairman doesn’t intend to take us there. We want to continue to work on the technology, the privacy issues need to be substantially addressed. There’s some equity issues, because most of the congestion is in urban areas but people don’t drive very far. The rural areas people have to drive long distances. Certainly you can’t have a uniform fee, because they contribute different loads to the system. And if you know where they were, when they were, then you’re back to privacy issues. So he’s a little frustrated with the pace of change. He’s giving a vision for the future, but that’s not going to be a major component of this bill. We’re looking at other potential revenue sources.
Andrea Bernstein: We’ll be watching for those details.