March 30, 2009
LaHood Testifies on Transportation Authorization Before Senate EPW Committee
Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee questioned U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on the future of public transit investment and the upcoming authorization bill, and the role of the Highway Trust Fund, during a March 25 hearing of the committee.
The chair of the committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), said she convened the hearing as part of the development process for the next federal transportation authorization bill; the current law, SAFETEA-LU, expires on Sept. 30. She referred to the upcoming bill as “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century,” or MAP 21.
“America’s transportation systems are the lifeblood of our economy,” LaHood said, “and when properly maintained and supported can be a catalyst for economic growth…We must devote resources to not only preserve and improve our existing assets, but also to increase the capacity of our networks to efficiently move goods and people, using new construction where needed, innovative technology, and operational improvements.”
While the jurisdiction of the committee—and, thus, the focus of the hearing—was primarily on highway and bridge construction and maintenance, committee members spoke about the role of transit, specifically rail.
“Now is the time to change our priorities; the U.S. must renew and revitalize its transportation infrastructure,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), calling for “a true surface transportation bill that encompasses all modes.” He cited APTA statistics reporting that the nation’s transit ridership is at its highest level in 52 years, and noted that Amtrak has also seen its ridership grow for each of the past six years.
Lautenberg asked LaHood to comment on the Highway Trust Fund, which the senator said is not sustainable in its current form. The secretary suggested additional alternatives to build on the trust fund, such as project costs paid by public-private partnerships or the establishment of an infrastructure bank.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) noted that his state is largely rural, with few transportation options beyond the automobile. LaHood proposed working with local transit districts about improvements to rural transit service, which could include buses or light rail, and could be targeted to transport rural employees to jobs in urban areas.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) recommended increases in the fuel tax to capture the purchasing power lost since 1993; he said this change would bring in $20 billion annually. In response, LaHood was not sure the current economic climate presented a good time to propose a gas tax increase.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Kathleen Novak, mayor of Northglenn, CO, and president of the National League of Cities, also testified at the March 25 hearing.
LaHood’s testimony followed an earlier appearance with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing, where they announced a partnership between their departments in support of building sustainable communities.
“One of my highest priorities is to help promote more livable communities through sustainable surface transportation programs,” said LaHood, a former member of the House who had served on the full Appropriations Committee. He and Donovan explained that they want to help American families gain better access to affordable housing, increase their transportation options, and lower their transportation costs by creating affordable, sustainable communities.
The secretaries testified March 18 before the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John Olver (D-MA), at a hearing titled “Livable Communities, Transit Oriented Development, and Incorporating Green Building Practices into Federal Housing and Transportation.”
Donovan echoed LaHood’s remarks, saying: “This partnership will help expand every American family’s choices for affordable housing and transportation. HUD’s central mission—ensuring that every American has access to decent, affordable housing—can be achieved only in context of the housing, transportation, and energy costs and choices that American families experience each day.”
The day after the two Cabinet secretaries testified, the subcommittee heard additional testimony on sustainable communities from representatives of think tanks, municipal governments, and nonprofit organizations.
Robert Puentes, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, praised the DOT-HUD “unified vision” and pointed to “the connections between housing and transportation and the need for integrated planning as a way to drive decisions that lead to productive, sustainable, and inclusive growth.” Calling on the federal government to support states and metropolitan areas in their efforts to develop plans that cover transportation, land use, and economic issues, he suggested the creation of “Sustainability Challenge Contracts” to help municipalities transcend the stovepiping of disparate programs and work together. He also recommended redefining “affordable housing” to add in the costs of transportation and energy associated with that housing.
Mary A. Leary, senior director for Easter Seals Project ACTION and the National Center on Senior Transportation, testified about the need to provide older people who are no longer able to drive with quality transportation options so they can remain active. She called the establishment of coalitions to aid seniors and persons with disabilities “essential and effective” and stressed that safe, accessible transit must be available in all environments.
John Norquist, president and chief executive officer of the Congress for the New Urbanism, described the three traditional purposes of thoroughfares—movement, commerce, and social interaction—as compared with more recent road construction designed exclusively to move traffic. In contrast, neighborhoods with many smaller streets provide travelers with choices, he said, including walking.
Grace Crunican, director of Seattle DOT, discussed the city’s efforts to expand housing opportunities adjacent to transit as part of increasing housing affordability. Between 2000 and 2008, she said, the median price of a single-family house in Seattle increased 73 percent, while the median income rose only 34 percent. Another city policy noted by Crunican requires that all new or reconstructed roads must be “complete streets” that will consider cars only one component, not the organizing principle. She pointed to Sound Transit’s Link light rail line, which will connect downtown Seattle to the Sea-Tac International Airport when it opens later this year, and the South Lake Union Streetcar line as examples of intermodal development in the city.