The Road to Recovery Begins with Transportation
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
As the country pulls out of recession, many believe investment in
infrastructure will help the U.S. economy now. U.S. Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood believes it also will be a key to a stronger economy
in the future.
What are your priorities in the discussion of reauthorization of the
federal transportation bill?
“To compete for the jobs and industries of the future, America must out-innovate and out-build the rest of the world. That is why President Obama called on the nation to repair our existing roads, bridges and transit systems and to build new infrastructure—including a national high-speed intercity rail network—that will safely and efficiently move people and goods.
“The reauthorization proposal should support (the Department of Transportation’s) five long-term goals. These include improving safety, economic competitiveness, livability, environmental sustainability and state of good repair. DOT plans to reach these goals in a number of ways. First, we will work to strengthen our transportation systems by building a national high-speed rail network, rebuilding our roads and bridges and investing in accessible, affordable transit. We will support innovation through the creation of an infrastructure bank and competitive programs that promote systematic reforms and innovative projects. We will work to ensure safety by reducing roadway crashes, providing the Federal Transit Administration with transit safety authority, and strengthening truck and bus oversight. And finally, we will continue to cut red tape by consolidating the highway program, accelerating project delivery, and measuring the performance of our transportation system and investments.”
In the absence of reauthorization, states have had to innovate solutions.
What are some promising things on the state level that have been good for
transportation in the U.S.? Do you foresee states having more flexibility in the
future to experiment in that way?
“We have seen a good deal of innovation at the state and local level, including greater utilization of financing tools for large projects, (such as Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA loans and loan guarantees); increasing partnership with neighboring jurisdictions, the private sector and the philanthropic community; and deployment of Intelligent Transportation System technology and operational improvements to get greater capacity out of existing systems.”
What transportation projects around the country stand to have a major impact
in terms of improving congestion, creating jobs or other criteria?
“Through the TIGER—Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery—Discretionary Grant program, we have seen incredible examples of innovation and partnership to address some of the biggest transportation challenges in the country. DOT has funded several freight projects—which are difficult to fund through the traditional formula grant program—that will address some of the largest freight bottlenecks nationwide. These include CREATE in Chicago, Tower 55 in Texas and the Alameda Corridor in Southern California. There are also transformative livability projects in communities large and small, including the Crenshaw Line in Los Angeles, a streetcar expansion in New Orleans and a main street reconstruction in Whitefish, Mont.. Finally, through TIGER we are replacing bridges that have been closed or weight-restricted from the South Park Bridge in Washington state to the Memorial Bridge connecting Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the incredible projects that are being built across the country today.”
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act had mixed reviews on its
success. What do you see as the successes and lessons learned from the
“The Recovery Act, the most significant public works program since President Roosevelt’s New Deal, financed almost 15,000 transportation projects that were included in every state of the union and improved 40,000 miles of roadways. At the U.S. Department of Transportation, we learned through the Recovery Act that we could get money out the door quickly, without cutting corners and with a greater degree of transparency. The agencies within DOT also learned to work better together.”
What’s the best way to identify the most “shovel-worthy” projects?
“This is a question that every area must answer for itself based on local needs. At DOT we are looking for projects that support our long-term goals of improving safety, economic competitiveness, livability, environmental sustainability and state of good repair—as well as our nearer-term goal of job creation.
“We also know that waste, inefficiency and bureaucracy can sometimes slow the process of selecting projects, hiring contractors and workers and getting shovels in the ground. That’s why President Obama, in his State of the Union address, called on federal agencies to cut red tape. Accepting the president’s challenge, DOT has proposed a significant change to the way major transit projects compete for federal funds by streamlining the process and making decisions more responsive to local needs. Our proposal would move more job-generating bus, rail and ferry projects from the drawing boards into construction sooner and with less red tape along the way.
“The proposed changes could potentially shave six months or more off the time that is now required to move major projects through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts pipeline. This new approach may also result in financial savings for the federal government and local taxpayers by allowing approved projects to begin construction sooner, saving on finance charges and other costs.”
Most agree that the level of infrastructure investment the country needs will
require significant new revenues. Given the unsustainable nature of the gas
tax, where do you see those revenues coming from in the future?
“The administration is committed to working with the Congress on a bipartisan basis to ensure that the president’s proposal will be paid for fully without increasing the deficit. But as the president said in his State of the Union address, with the conclusion of the war in Iraq, we should take the money we're saving by winding down our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the other half on a six year transportation bill that lets American workers do some nation-building right here at home.”
What’s the best way to emphasize the impact of infrastructure on economic
development and job creation?
“By 2050, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people, the equivalent of another California, Texas, New York and Florida. If we settle for the status quo, our next generation of entrepreneurs will find America’s arteries of commerce impassibly clogged and our families and neighbors will fight paralyzing congestion. Our transportation system has reached a crossroads. America’s highways will always be essential avenues for travel and transport. But we can no longer rely exclusively on a marvel of 20th century engineering and construction to guarantee 21st century economic growth, opportunity and competitiveness.
“As recently as 2005, the World Economic Forum ranked America’s infrastructure the best in the world. Today, we aren’t ranked in the top 10. It may feel like we’re saving a few bucks by doing nothing, but the long-term costs of inaction are staggering. One recent report found that our poor infrastructure shaves 0.2 percent off our GDP every year.
“Americans are calling for more affordable, more efficient, more sustainable options for getting from one place to another (that are) not instead of, but in addition to, our highways. They are asking for investments in commuter rail, light rail, buses, and sidewalks and bike paths. They are asking for policies that will bring affordable housing in closer proximity to good schools and quality jobs. And they are asking for a high-speed rail system that will revitalize our cities and make America’s infrastructure the envy of the world.
“Strengthening our transportation systems creates jobs and grows our economy, all while helping us meet the 21st century challenges of improving the environment, making our communities more livable and enhancing safety.”
How can developing a plan and vision for transportation at all levels of
government and demonstrating visible benefits to the public help advance
“Today, the United States again faces sizeable economic and infrastructure challenges. President Obama has prevented our economy from plunging into another Great Depression. But too many of our families, friends and neighbors are out of work. Too much of our infrastructure is overburdened and outdated. The president offered an economic plan that takes on both these problems at once—a plan that invests in America’s infrastructure as the means of laying a new foundation for economic opportunity and prosperity.
“That’s why President Obama unveiled his vision for the future of America’s transportation system—starting with a $50 billion upfront investment in these very roads and bridges. He committed to rebuilding 150,000 additional miles of pavement; laying and maintaining 4,000 miles of track; restoring 150 miles of runways; putting in place a next generation air-traffic control system that will reduce travel time and delays; and establishing a national infrastructure bank, which will finance innovative projects that are regional or national in scope.”
High-speed rail projects haven’t taken off as anticipated. Does the vision of
a nationwide high-speed rail system still make sense or is it now necessary,
as some suggest, to scale back that vision and concentrate efforts where
they can be most successful?
“High-speed rail is a game changer for U.S. transportation. It’s important to this administration, it’s important to me personally, and most of all, it’s important to the American people, whose representatives have submitted more than 500 applications requesting $75 billion to build high-speed rail projects—all since 2009. But game changers aren’t built overnight. We spent decades building the Interstate system that we have today, and it is the envy of the world. It never could have happened if the program had been given only a few years to reach completion.
“During the last three years, we’ve put American workers on rail job sites in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Projects in Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon and Vermont are coming in ahead of schedule and under budget. At the same time, we’re supporting jobs at manufacturing plants in industrial states like Indiana—and at suppliers in states like Arizona and Arkansas. Everything from tracks, to ties, to train sets, to construction materials for new stations is being built by American workers.
“In fact, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott decided to send back his state’s $2 billion of high-speed rail money, 24 states, Washington, D.C. and Amtrak submitted requests totaling five times that amount—another powerful testament to America’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail.
“During the next six months, more than $1.1 billion of new job-creating construction projects will commence. We’ve invested in increasing the Acela’s speed from 135 to 186 miles per hour and in bringing 110 mile-per-hour service to the Midwest. We’ll soon break ground on a new line between Portland and Seattle. We will continue planning for a Southwest network that connects Dallas to Houston and Oklahoma City. And we’re committed to helping the people of California achieve their vision for high-speed rail.
“The dollars to support all of this were included—and paid for—in every budget that President Obama has submitted to Congress. All of this was included in the president’s outline for a long-term transportation bill, which charted a course and proposed funding for the next six years. As this important system emerges, jobs, economic development and economic competitiveness will follow.”
Sustainable communities have been another key initiative for you as
secretary and for the administration. Why do you think that should continue
to be a focus at the federal level going forward?
“Sustainable communities are ones that offer their residents transportation choices, housing options and necessities close to home. Transportation costs are lower in these communities and can save American families thousands of dollars a year. ... For example, if a family of four can survive with two cars instead of three, they can save up to $8,000 a year.
“Sustainable communities also save the taxpayer money by focusing economic development where there is underutilized infrastructure.
“Finally, demand for these communities far outstrips supply and is growing. Communities with these amenities have been found to command a premium due to the number of people who would like to spend less time in their car. … Responding to the public’s demand for these more affordable communities is just good government.”
In the past century, the Interstate Highway System provided an easily
understood national goal and vision. Does such a national rallying point or
vision exist in the 21st century and how important is that to finding a way to
advance infrastructure in this country?
“Our blueprint for building high-speed rail is the same as America’s blueprint for building the Interstate Highway System.
“A half-century ago, when the United States first started going from planning to paving, we didn’t know where all the routes were going to be drawn on the map and we didn’t know where every last penny of funding was going to come from. But President Eisenhower set a goal. Through 10 administrations and 28 sessions of Congress, we got it done. And we didn’t just invest when times were good. We have a proud history of investing when times were tough. Through boom years and bust years—through eight recessions—we built the best roadways in the world.
“In the short-term, we’re creating manufacturing and construction jobs through investments in high-speed rail. In the long-term, high-speed rail will bolster America’s economic competitiveness. By building a high-speed rail system, we can leave a legacy that connects our children and grandchildren with a new century of opportunity.”
Do you think the public has an adequate understanding about the nation’s
infrastructure needs, the political and fiscal challenges policymakers face in
addressing those needs and the importance of improving our infrastructure to
“I’ve travelled to 200 cities in 48 states during the last three years. Everywhere I go, people come up to me and say the same thing: ‘Put my neighbors to back to work rebuilding our country.’ I’ve met with construction workers building St. Paul’s new light rail line, Charlotte’s new streetcar system and Oakland’s new air traffic control tower. I’ve visited with leaders of America’s labor movement at the Laborers’ International Convention in Las Vegas, with business people in Kansas City and with economic development officials in Anchorage.
“And this is no partisan sentiment. In one poll conducted earlier this year, two of three voters—and 59 percent of Tea Party supporters—said making improvements in transportation is extremely important.”
What would be your advice to state government officials about working with
your department to try to deliver important projects and meet the nation’s
“This is no ordinary time. When President Obama took the oath of office, we were facing major economic challenges, the worst recession since the Great Depression. The impact was felt around every kitchen and boardroom table, in every home and every business, in every neighborhood and community.
“It is vitally important for the department to work with state and local governments while we re-imagine and rebuild America’s transportation system. This isn’t about politics—or about pitting people on the left against people on the right. It’s about whether our economy goes up or goes down. It’s about whether we have a transportation system that moves us forward or one that holds us back. Together, we’re laying the groundwork for progress—and getting America on the move again.”