Rep. Richard Hanna, recently named the vice chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, is one of 19 freshmen Republicans on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. (Duncan Hunter is the 20th new Republican on the committee, but he’s not a freshman.) He represents New York’s 24th District, which includes Cooperstown, Utica, Norwich and the Finger Lakes. He’s a licensed pilot, an NRA member, and the founder of a crisis fund for women. We caught up with him to talk transportation and asked him some questions from our readers.
Streetsblog: [Yesterday] was your debut on the T&I Committee. I wanted to ask about your priorities for the reauthorization. Are you hoping for a six year bill?
Hanna: Yes, absolutely. And Chairman Mica has made it clear that that’s also his goal. So I think if we work together, hopefully we can put something together before the August recess.
SB: And you owned a construction company.
RH: Yes, maybe you heard what I said; I said I hope to add value at the intersection of practicality and what goes on here. So we’ll see if my world and this world have something in common.
SB: There’s some tension between building highways and building transit: which is more cost effective, what should we be focusing our time and scarce resources on – where do you come down on that?
RH: I’m going to wait and see. I think mass transit and high speed rail are interesting concepts. But you have to remember, we’re at a point in our history – it’s not like building the transcontinental highway or railroad – it’s a little different now. We’re really in a budget crisis and we have to be a little more thoughtful about where we spend money. But if something makes sense – if there are corridors that are dense enough that at some point they can break even or self-support mass transit between certain areas – I’d certainly be happy to look at it.
SB: There’s also some talk about whether things like bike lanes for urban transportation, so people aren’t having to get in their cars to go two miles, whether those fall under a federal bill or whether they should be done locally.
RH: It’s great if it’s done locally; maybe it should be designed locally. But highway money is a little different than money from general revenue in that it is a user fee, a gas tax on both diesel and gas, and it needs to go back into the communities.
And I think it would be nice if earmarks didn’t pollute the process, that they were somehow based on merit, and merit meaning not just your rank and seniority but the merit of the project. So I look forward to weaving through all that. You know, I’m kind of new here.
But I think of myself as a fiscal conservative, a guy who’s deeply invested in cutting back the cost of government and at the same time I’d like to see this money go back to communities especially in the northeast where they have aging and failing infrastructure: sewer, water, bridges, roads, all of that. So it’s needed, but it needs to be spent wisely.
SB: Some people say that gasoline at this point costs less than its weight in bottled water –
RH: Yeah, it does!
SB: – And there’s going to be a time when that’s not possible anymore. Do you envision a future where driving is the privilege of the very rich?
RH: I think it’s possible, depending on the cost of fuels, but it isn’t in the foreseeable future. One of the reasons the user fee is down so low is because people are driving less, cars are going further, we see a lot of electric cars on the road. So the matrix that made up the revenue stream has changed dynamically.
I think one of the big questions this Congress may face in the next couple years is, going forward, how do we pay for this if we’re only taxing gas and diesel fuel, and it isn’t enough. What do we do about that – do we live with what we make and take in, or do we expand it somehow?
SB: Well, we can either spend a whole lot less, we can raise the gas tax, or we can switch to a VMT fee.
RH: We can make local communities pay for their own things, states pay for their own things and the federal government live within their means. I’m really inclined to think that way. We are burdened to death in this country with taxes. There’s nothing about any of that that I would change lightly. But we’ll see what the future brings.
SB: But shifting it to the state just means that states are burdened and people are burdened with state taxes.
RH: That’s right, but they might be able to make better choices. And they’re in a position to design and understand their communities better and what they need. People building something that they want with money that they’re given – block grants aren’t a bad idea really.
SB: There have been some new administration programs like TIGER that are more competitive; instead of just doing block grants and formula grants, really having states compete each other for innovative projects.
RH: That’s nice, that’s more value added, more ideas that come out of those things. There’s nothing wrong with following best practices and letting people get out there and compete. You learn more and you get smarter and somebody may come up with something that surprises you.
SB: What do you think of Ray LaHood?
RH: I don’t know him very well. I’ll let you know.
Here I turned off my microphone and we kept chatting for a minute. I switched it back on when he said he’d graduated from Reed College and thought Portland was doing some really interesting things with transportation.
RH: They’ve really adopted a lot of things in Portland that are more environmentally friendly, that make sense, and they’re working well. But you have a community there that’s enforcing it, that wants it. I think we need to rethink how we do everything.
SB: Do you see that in your district?
RH: I have an aging infrastructure, and it’s a rural community. People travel long distances between points. The opportunities for mass transit there are pretty limited. Things like bike paths, we have. But most everybody I know drives half an hour to an hour to work. So it’s tough. You need a certain density to make things work and we don’t have it.
SB: Do you see any possibilities there so that people don’t need to drive an hour to work? That’s two hours of your day.
RH: If you’re a farmer, your farm is where it is. So many of our cities aren’t doing very well, so that the density’s even lower than the geography and buildings of the city would suggest. So the capacity to build something that’s considered efficient about probably are more limited.
SB: Do you see a lot of suburban sprawl?
RH: You do, there’s an awful lot of sprawl. But we have enormous amounts of land and it’s mostly farms. About 80 percent of our district is farming or related to farming.
SB: Well, Portland did the urban growth boundary.
RH: Yeah, I like that a lot. I lived in Portland when they were doing that. Portland’s an interesting place. They invented the bottle law. I was there and watched that happened; I was in college at the time.
SB: What year did you graduate, if I may ask?
RH: To tell you the truth it was 1976. Reed College: a rare place. They know I’m a Republican but they haven’t called for my diploma yet.