As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tangled with a senior GOP senator today over the White House’s $500 million-plus request for its inter-agency office of sustainable communities — a new project aimed at channeling federal energy towards local transit-oriented and smart growth plans — an influential Democrat joined her fellow senator in raising questions about diverting highway money to the effort.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman of the upper chamber’s transportation spending panel, praised the mission of the sustainability office but told LaHood she has "concerns about" the Obama administration’s pitch to send $200 million in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding to the effort next year.
"I also have questions about how these proposals from [U.S.] DOT fit into our larger debate over" paying for the next long-term federal transportation bill, Murray said.
Murray’s measured assessment of the new alliance between LaHood, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) focused on how federal officials would define the concept of "sustainability" as they determined how to dole out grants to local development plans.
But her Republican counterpart on the spending panel, Sen. Kit Bond (MO), took a harder line in challenging LaHood on the administration’s ability to positively influence on-the-ground urban and rural planning.
"I’m not as confident [as others] that trusting federal decision-makers in Washington to lead the process, to tell communities how they should grow, is the right way to go," Bond said, tangling with LaHood as he aligned with a road construction industry group that criticized the administration’s sustainability budget.
Sending that $200 million from highways — about one-two-hundredth of the FHWA’s annual budget — to the sustainable communities office "may reflect a view that we want to get rid of auto transportation," Bond said.
"The idea we’re giving up on [roads] or don’t care about the highways is nonsense," LaHood shot back. "People want other alternatives. We have a state-of-the-art interstate system. If people need more capacity, they can tell us that."
Bond’s reply was equally charged: "I’m telling you that."
Murray and Bond’s panel is charged with translating the White House budget request into annual spending legislation for the U.S. DOT and HUD. Congress ultimately approved the administration’s proposed $150 million in sustainability grants last year, but this year’s higher funding pitch could face a tougher path to passage amid the lack of progress on a new six-year federal transport bill.
Still, that continued reliance on extensions of existing transportation law — which have necessitated a transfer of more than $30 billion from the general Treasury to the highway trust fund since 2008 — gave LaHood ammunition against Bond and Murray’s complaint that road users would be ceding that $200 million in highway money to the sustainability office.
When lawmakers pay for transport programs from the general Treasury, LaHood said, "part of that money comes … from all
the taxpayers — who, in some instances, want something other than
roads. I have to put that on the record."