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Ray LaHood: The Obama Appointment You Should Be Really Worried About

He'll guide the spending of vast amounts of stimulus money, oversee the auto bailout and be responsible for a raft of critical policy.

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It also sets mileage and safety standards for cars. Want a plug-in car in every smart garage, connected by a renewables-friendly smart grid? DOT will play a critical role in deciding whether, when and how plug-in cars and electric car infrastructure happens.

It oversees all of the Federal government's research programs. Want the groundwork done on new policies and technologies? DOT is the one handing out the research dollars.

But even more importantly, Transportation is about to play a key role in handing out hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few years. Without the right kind of progressive, knowledgeable leadership, the stimulus package, the bailout and the new transportation bill will together fund the largest single step backwards the U.S. transportation system has taken since the end of World War Two: a massive investment in new highways, suburban sprawl and minimally more efficient, taxpayer-subsidized new cars.

The numbers are clear. A recent study shows that the vast majority of the transportation funding asked for by the states is for new highway construction (PDF), primarily on the suburban fringe.. As The Hill reports, this represents an astonishing gusher of money aimed at building more highways:

"The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) said there are 5,000 ready-to-go projects, worth $64 billion. Fully funded, the projects would support 1.8 million jobs, the group said. ...as much as 95 percent of the programs go to traditional transportation programs."

That's a lot of money to spend in one year, but the Highway Lobby could not be happier with the prospects for getting even more funding in years to come. "The 2009 federal highway and transit authorization bill provides the best opportunity in more than 50 years to... significantly boost the highway and bridge construction market for the future," said American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) President & CEO Pete Ruane. Meanwhile, a number of builders groups representing suburban developers and The American Highway Users Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of auto-related businesses, heartily endorse LaHood's appointment.

Since the economy is sagging so severely, some argue that much of the stimulus package needs to go to "shovel-ready" infrastructure: existing projects or plans that can be quickly completed and approved and undertaken. All those who have gotten rich off the status quo -- the Highway Lobby, suburban developers, state transportation agencies, even the Teamsters -- are saying that "shovel ready" can only mean "roads." They're wrong.

We're ready to run with all sorts of better alternatives. Transportation for America, a new national coalition of smart growth, transit and good government groups, has already put forward an alternative list of $33 billion worth of shovel-ready but environmentally-friendly transportation infrastructure projects, and is lobbying for $100 billion in total investment in transit and other climate-friendly solutions.

What's more, we should be more worried about spending the money right than spending it quickly: as Paul Krugman said in a recent column, "Why does the time frame have to be short? ...Right now the investment portion of the Obama plan is limited by a shortage of 'shovel ready' projects, projects ready to go on short notice. A lot more investment can be under way by late 2010 or 2011 if Mr. Obama gives the go-ahead now..."

So, while Transportation for America is doing critical work (their platform is well worth a read), their proposals do not go nearly far enough, when measured against our need for change or our opportunity to use this change to solve multiple problems at once by doing the right thing instead of the expedient thing.

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