Have you heard about Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s “tabletop speech” at the National Bike Summit? Probably not, but it’s legendary in pro-bicycle, anti-car circles. LaHood got a wild standing ovation in March when he climbed on a table in a congressional hearing room, touted his department’s “livable community program,” and talked about getting people “out of their cars.”
“We’re going to put affordable housing next to walking paths and biking paths,” LaHood said, amid cheers. “I’ve been all over America and . . . I’ve been very proud to talk about the fact people do want alternatives.” You’ll never guess what that alternative is. “They want to get out of their cars,” he said, prompting more cheers. “They want to get out of congestion.” Still more cheers.
LaHood was half right. People hate traffic congestion. But they want to get out of their cars about as much as they want to get stuck behind a bicyclist who rides at a donkey’s pace before running through red lights and stop signs. What people mainly want is to stay in their cars and have LaHood do something to reduce congestion.
Like finance the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges to facilitate the flow of autos and trucks. That, rather than promoting “livability” or “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized,” is the job of the Department of Transportation. Always has been.
That the department has fallen away from its primary mission isn’t LaHood’s fault alone. The law that funds the large federal share of road and bridge construction expired last year. The 18-cent per gallon tax on gasoline still flows into the Highway Trust Fund, but it’s not enough. The fund is insolvent.
Meanwhile, we’re trailing China, India, Europe, and Brazil—Brazil!—in investing in “surface transportation.” The drag on the American economy is enormous and indisputable. Most freight goes by truck, and the Department of Transportation has identified 227 truck bottlenecks, with delays costing $7.8 billion a year. Traffic congestion in general, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, causes 4.2 billion hours of lost time and 2.8 billion gallons of wasted fuel at a cost of $87 billion annually.
On Labor Day in Milwaukee, then on Columbus Day in the Rose Garden, President Obama plugged his six-year transportation plan, or at least a $50 billion down payment on it. “We will rebuild 150,000 miles of our roads, enough to circle the world six times,” he said, plus “lay and maintain 4,000 miles of our railways” and “restore 150 miles of runways and advance a next generation air-traffic control system.”
All this will be “fully paid for,” the president declared. He didn’t explain how. A White House fact sheet said the administration is “committed to working with Congress to fully pay for the plan.” This puts financing in the hope-springs-eternal category. And, by the way, $48 billion of last year’s stimulus package was devoted to transportation projects, not a dime of which was “paid for.”
The administration’s obsession with high-speed rail presents a funding problem all its own. Such rail projects have three attributes: Their projections of high ridership and gains for the economy are pie-in-the-sky; they fail every cost-benefit test; and their price tag is low-balled, leading inexorably to steep cost overruns.
Yet a paper issued by the president’s economic advisers makes the dubious claim that high-speed rail is a way to keep America economically competitive with Europe. The stimulus included $8 billion for high-speed projects, again not “paid for.” Now the administration is taking “the next step toward realizing its vision for high-speed rail,” the Department of Transportation said in June, handing out “$2.1 billion in grants to continue the development of high-speed intercity passenger rail corridors.”
On top of that, there’s talk in Washington of spending $50 billion more on high-speed trains. Where the funding would come from is anybody’s guess, but LaHood is fully on board. High-speed rail between cities is needed “so people can get out of their cars,” he said in an interview last month with Grist magazine. “They can take a train ride to see Grandma rather than doing it in a car.”
LaHood repeats a common fallacy about intercity rail (and often about light rail too). It doesn’t replace the car. Unless Grandma lives close to a railroad station, her offspring will have to take a taxi or rent a car to get to her house. Or Grandma will have to drive to the station to pick them up.
Last year, George Will zinged LaHood as the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his fervent opposition to cars. LaHood all but pleaded guilty. Steering funds from highways to bike and walking paths and streetcars, he said, “is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” His word, coerce.
But it’s hardly an answer to traffic congestion. Most people, most of the time, aren’t going to ride a bike to work or walk. They’re going to drive, even in the face of disincentives erected by LaHood.
As a solution to congestion in the foreseeable future, this leaves us with building more highways, repairing existing ones, and maintaining them. The question is how to pay for this. The current gas tax won’t suffice. It hasn’t been increased since 1993, and it’s lost one-third or more of its value since then through inflation.
Republicans—conservatives especially—get red in the face when they hear of raising the gas tax. It makes more sense, however, than cutting back on the highway program or paying for it out of general revenues. Presi-dent Reagan understood this when he backed a 5-cent increase in 1982. It “will make truck transportation more efficient and productive for years to come,” he said in a radio address. “We will be preserving for future generations of Americans a highway system that has long been the envy of the world.”
The days of envy are gone. What’s required to restore a great highway system is a hike of 10 to 15 cents in the gas tax. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? The gain—more and better highways, less congestion—makes the trade-off worthwhile.
The Obama administration, with its priority on ejecting people from their cars and its embrace of an environmental ethic that regards highways as evil, is unlikely to champion a higher gas tax. Any other tax increase you can imagine, yes. This one, no. That means Republicans will have to step up. They can insist the revenues be used solely for highways and bridges. Local governments would then be free to spend on bikeways.
In his tabletop speech, LaHood said he and his wife take their bikes to the path along the C&O Canal and “ride as far as we possibly can.” That’s nice. But it’s interesting, and perhaps telling, that the canal, as a major mode of transportation, has been obsolete since the 1880s—a lot like bicycling and walking.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.