Former U.S. Transportation Secretaries Discuss How to Restore Public Confidence in Transportation Spending

I blogged last week about an appearance by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica at a Washington, D.C. forum hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center during which the Florida Congressman discussed the timetable for introducing his committee’s transportation authorization bill. That forum was notable for a number of other reasons, including a roundtable that brought together five former U.S. secretaries of transportation. Among the issues they touched on: how to restore public confidence in transportation spending and how to define a compelling national purpose for the federal transportation program. Here is some of what they had to say.

James Burnley, Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Reagan Administration, 1987-89

A Disconnect with the American People on Transportation

Burnley: “I believe that we have got a fundamental disconnect between what we perceive to be the needs and what we perceive to be the resources that should be devoted to those needs and what the American people believe …We have a fundamental crisis. The Highway Trust Fund has collapsed—past tense. We’ve had to put almost $35 billion into it the last three or four years just to prop it up and it’s about to collapse again … There is this fundamental disconnect between what all of us perceive as a crisis and what the American people perceive as anything but. At least not one they want to spend any money on or make any tradeoffs against any other public policy areas …This fundamental disconnect I think has happened because the American people have become very cynical about how fuel taxes are spent. Every time there’s a state budget crisis in most states, they see attempts to raid transportation trust funds and divert those funds to other needs.”

Transportation Enhancements & Earmarks Have Produced Cynicism

Burnley: “On the federal level they see what we have come to call enhancements. And Congress is beginning to focus on that. But, if you’re building trolley museums instead of repairing bridges, we should not be surprised if people become cynical over time.”

“And then there’s earmarking. Earmarking has stopped as of last January in both houses of Congress. But the American people I would suggest if you did a survey and asked them ‘is there still earmarking,’ 75 percent or more would say yes. That is a well-kept secret and it will take time and continuing efforts to educate people about that having stopped. But most importantly, it has to stay stopped because if we go back to earmarking and we go back to what we have come to know (as) “bridges to nowhere,” then that cynicism will simply be reinforced and this fundamental disconnect will not get addressed.”

Transportation & Job Creation

Burnley: “Finally on my list of things we have to stop doing as we move forward is treating transportation infrastructure as a short-term jobs program. (The stimulus) didn’t work by any conventional definition of what “working” means. We all knew—those of us who have expertise in the field—knew it would not work in terms of short-term stimulus because it takes time. It takes years for that money to actually be spent and for people to be hired.”

“We need to convince the American people that we need to invest in transportation infrastructure because we need to invest in transportation infrastructure. If we sell that idea not as a jobs program but because it affects the ability of our economy to grow over time or our international competitiveness or any of the other things that we believe it affects. Then we’ve got a fighting shot at convincing the American people that the resources that need to be devoted to transportation as we all believe, should be devoted to it.”

Future of Fuel Taxes

Burnley: “Fuel taxes are broken permanently in my judgment. We can’t raise fuel taxes a nickel. We’re talking about having to raise them 30, 50, 75 cents to sustain current programs in just a few years. Not gonna happen.”

“We’re at a point that is unique. It is a fundamental departure from where we’ve ever been before in our collective experience. And it takes first recognition of that. And then it is going to take, I think, presidential leadership of a sort we seldom have seen on transportation issues.”

“The American Trucking Association has been on the public record for several years as supporting a diesel fuel tax increase so long as it’s spent on highways. So long as it’s spent on highways, it is a true user fee. If it’s spent on bike paths, they are adamantly opposed to an increase in diesel fuel taxes and if it’s spent on museums, they are adamantly opposed. I have a very nice bicycle. I love riding it on the weekends …”

A User Fee for Bicyclists?

Burnley: “My question is if people can afford bikes that cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, why don’t we have a bicycle user fee to fund bike paths. If it’s that important then let’s let the users fund it … And I think that would take us a fair ways down the road of re-establishing credibility with the American public for our programs if the people who are benefitting from the programs are asked to contribute to those programs. But don’t ask the trucking industry to subsidize the bikers.”

“If you want bike paths then you generate revenues from those who are the beneficiaries of the bike paths that are dedicated to the bike paths. That is not a radical concept except for the fact that the people who are riding on the bike paths today are accustomed to having somebody else subsidize them.”

“In certain urban areas (the funding of a mix of transportation options) is going to be very popular. But in other areas it’s going to be very unpopular. And so we need to have devices on the state and federal level that permit it in a given locale if the citizenry wants to have diverse programs funded do that but not tap into federal funds that have been paid for example by the trucking industry.”

Investment in Freight Needed

Burnley: “Even if the economy grows a little bit over the next decade, we’re going to have 30 percent more freight to move in this country. Thirty percent. Railroads do not go to 80 percent of our communities. And intermodalism is a concept we’re all familiar with where the trucks take the freight to the trains and the trains take it half way or all the way across the country and then they unload it for the last few miles. And that’s a concept that’s very efficient and works very well. But 30 percent more freight is going to have to be moved and it’s going to take highways.”

“So when you say to the trucking industry ‘oh, but you have to have enhancements and you have to have flexibility,’ they say ‘wait a minute, we’ve got to move freight across this country and there’s going to be a lot more of it.’”

Samuel Skinner, Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, George H.W. Bush Administration, 1989-91

Restoring Confidence in Government

Skinner: “The American people have lost confidence in the ability of government to do big things and to manage spending in what is a sensible way. In order for us to sell our program and the fact that we effectively do projects on budget and on time especially in highways, the American people have to have confidence restored in government and the way the money is being allocated and spent. And until we do that, it’s going to be very difficult. So we’ve got really two missions: one is to make the (case) for transportation spending but the second (is) to make sure people understand that rightly allocated, government—state, local and federal—can spend money correctly.”

Runaway Costs of High-Profile Projects Undermine Confidence

Skinner: “We still are suffering from the residue of a couple of projects that got out of control and with the help of Republicans and Democrats working together we got them back in control. In particular I’m thinking about the Big Dig … It started out as a $3 billion project and it ended up being $19 billion. There is still that residue of projects like that. Fortunately there haven’t been too many.”

“We’re going to allocate $15 billion for high-speed rail. Putting aside whether you believe in high-speed rail or not … the project was estimated in California to be maybe $20 billion. It’s already up to $90 billion. One shovel hasn’t been put into ground and no one knows for sure what projects like that are going to cost. And yes, the people of California voted for it … But the point is you cannot have high-profile projects with runaway costs without undercutting people’s confidence in the ability of the American (government) to do it.”

Rodney Slater, Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Clinton Administration, 1997-2001

Transportation Enhancement Projects Popular

Slater: “We have some enhancement projects ... That’s a small amount of money. But I’ll tell you, if you go to see some of those projects dedicated, the crowd that’s there (and the crowd) that’s supportive of the major multi-billion dollar project, those crowds are the same. And it takes both those crowds to help us get the message out I think.”

Highlighting Dedication of Government Can Restore Public Confidence

Slater: “I think that there are clearly places to complain about the role of government and how government sometimes maybe makes a misstep here or there. But there are dedicated people in government and we need to help the people understand that. And they’re ready to work with the public and the private sector to do the kinds of things and the kinds of work that needs to be done to move the country forward.”

Transportation is About Jobs

Slater: “We can’t compete when countries around the world have better ports and have better airports and have better transportation systems than we. And transportation is about jobs. It’s about jobs, it’s about health care, it’s about all of these things that a President talks about. That’s how we get into that message.”

High-Speed Rail Should be Part of Discussion Now

Slater: “And with this President, he talks about high-speed rail. And I’m excited about high-speed rail. I don’t think it’s something that you (should) say is for the future. You may say that it may be for another day. But if we aren’t thinking about it now… When we introduced Acela, we were not 10 or 15 years behind. It’s just that we haven’t done anything in 10 years.”

Mary Peters, Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, George W. Bush Administration, 2006-09

Interstate System Provided National Purpose

Peters: “We’ve done a great job of convincing each other … of the need to invest more in transportation. How then do we carry this message out to the American people and convince them? And I think it’s instructive for us to go back and see when did it work? Well, it worked during the interstate era. It worked when there was a compelling national purpose and therefore the American citizens saw no problem in investing in gas taxes that were incrementally increased in order to fund the completion of the interstate highway system. And even though that money didn’t come from one state and go directly back to that state, people saw the value in building those interstate highways, whether it was in Montana or Wyoming or some of the large, boxy Western states even if they weren’t generating that much money.”

Lack of ‘Investor Confidence’

Peters: “So what then happened that moved us away from that time to create what we have now—this lack of investor confidence in delivering the program? Well part of it was the evolution of some of the things that several of us have talked about here (which were) not bad in and of themselves—earmarks, special programs, things like that, bicycle trails or historic covered bridges. But the totality of those types of deviations from that clear national purpose and clear national mention I think have contributed to the problem or again this lack of investor confidence. And the other has been the projects that you all talked about. You can scarcely talk to a person today (who) doesn’t know what the Big Dig is, that doesn’t know what the so-called Bridge to Nowhere is. Even though both of those projects would have value, the public sees them as signs of excess and signs of waste in government and what we’re not doing right.”

“So if we’re (going to be) able to recapture the public’s confidence in this system and the public’s willingness to invest in this system, I think we have to do a couple of things. One is we have to now cut back to the very core highway and transit programs that these bills are supposed to fund. We no longer have the luxury of doing the “nice to do” things or the things that would be good. We have to be willing to bring this program back to those very, very basics of what we must do.”

Don’t Have Revenues for High-Speed Rail, Enhancements

Peters: “High-speed passenger rail … I put that in the “nice to do” category. Others may disagree with me. But we simply don’t have the revenue to do it at this time … Things like transportation enhancements. Those trolley museums and railroad museums and things like that may be good things in and of themselves, but again they’re “nice to do” and we can’t afford the luxury of doing things like that right now. We have to scale that back.”

“If the local government wants bike paths or something like that, they should be willing to pony up local money for doing that as opposed to (using) federal dollars.”

Gas Tax Not Sustainable as Revenue Source

Peters: “We have to explore alternatives to the gas tax. It has served us very well and I think we have enjoyed the fruits of the gas tax over a period of time. But let’s look at this: today the corporate average fuel economy amount is 27 miles per gallon. By 2016 absent something changing, it has to go to 35.4 miles per gallon and by 2025—just last week EPA released a regulation that would drive that up to 54.5 miles per gallon ... The gas tax isn’t sustainable, it is not reliable and it is not going to get us into the future. So let’s focus those gas tax revenues on where (they) can do the most good in the near term on those core programs, explore alternatives, bring new sources of revenue in.”

Demonstrating Return on Investment

Peters: “But as importantly, we need to demonstrate to the public that when they invest in transportation, they’re getting a good return on investment. And we have to use those terms. If you invest a dollar in a transportation project, you’re going to make a significant improvement in the ability to attract and retain businesses in an area. And I find it very interesting that more than 67 percent of local initiatives that would fund transportation, whether they be from sales taxes or other types of revenue coming in—more than 67 percent pass. So the public is willing to pay for transportation when they see what they’re getting and they believe it’s a good investment. We need to bring that same parameter to the federal level and be able to make that demonstration there as well.”

“If our calculation of what it costs to carry goods—logistics—in the United States is greater than it is in China or in South America or somewhere else, we lose in a global economy. So if we can make that translation to the public in a very understandable way like that—that efficient transportation systems will help save us money, make the cost of our goods less and make us more competitive on a national stage, then I think we can really begin to make some progress.”

States Raided Transportation Funds

Peters: “I saw every state in the last two legislative cycles strip out every available dollar they could from transportation programs and spend it somewhere else … What’s the federal purpose (of the surface transportation program)? If we can define that, then we can define a methodology for having revenues come into the federal government that the public will believe in.”

New National Purpose Could be ‘Interstates 2.0’

Peters: “Much of our interstate system today qualifies for its very own AARP card because it’s over 50 years of age and it’s aging rapidly and it needs to be not only maintained but improved and expanded. Some of those corridors that weren’t on the map back in 1956 like those North-South corridors would be important to add. So it seems to me something like that we could get our heads around and say okay, if that’s where this money is going to be spent and these are the very narrow parameters under which it is spent, perhaps we could get people more enthusiastic about putting more money into a federal program.”

Norman Mineta, Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, George W. Bush Administration, 2001-06

Transportation is Taken for Granted

Mineta: “When you take a look at transportation as part of the whole picture, it really is a small sector of the economy. Yet everything we eat, everything we wear, everything we do somehow got to us on wheels at our home, at a store, at a distribution center, at a manufacturing point—somehow it got there on wheels. I’ve never been able to understand why something as vital as transportation is something that everyone takes for granted except when it’s denied them.”

Back to Basics, Grass Roots

Mineta: “I think we really do have to get back to the basics. And I don’t mean that in a programmatic way but in a message way of getting it out to the grass roots. And this is where the states become very, very important.”

High-Speed Rail Defense

The current occupant of the secretary of transportation’s office, Ray LaHood, was on Capitol Hill today to testify at a hearing on “Mistakes & Lessons Learned” from the federal high-speed rail program. You can read Streetsblog Capitol Hill’s report on the hearing here. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Bill Shuster (R-PA) recently pronounced dead the Obama administration’s plans to build a nationwide high-speed rail network after the House voted to zero out funding for rail in next year’s budget. LaHood outlined his case why high-speed rail is anything but dead in this blog post today.

Earmarks Making a Comeback?

The Washington Post last week reported that despite a moratorium on earmarks put in place by congressional leaders less than a year ago (which several of the former secretaries alluded to above), members of the House and Senate have tried to insert hundreds of special spending provisions into at least 10 bills over the past year. And even as some are trying to permanently ban earmarks, others are trying to revive them under certain circumstances.

The Miller Center National Transportation Policy Summit

You can find more about the work of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center here. The center’s previous transportation policy summit in 2009 produced a 2010 entitled “Well Within Reach: America’s New Transportation Agenda.” You can read my blog post about the report here.

Tanya Snyder on Streetsblog Capitol Hill also reported last week on the former secretaries’ roundtable.

In addition to the former secretaries, last week’s summit also included panels on where things stand in developing a new approach to transportation, the potential economic growth impact of infrastructure investment and what kind of messaging is successful in shaping public opinion with regards to transportation spending. I’ll have more on the summit in a future blog post.