Rep. LaTourette Tells Transit Advocates to Ask Congress for What They Need

Transit officials spent the day on Capitol Hill yesterday, meeting with Congressional offices as part of the American Public Transportation Association’s legislative conference.

Transportation Committee Chair John Mica suggested they ask members for a six-year bill. Secretary Ray LaHood urged them to ask for support for President Obama’s “big, bold vision” for transportation.

LaTourette, right, meets with Ohio bike advocates during last week's Bike Summit. Photo courtesy of the League of American Bicyclists

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH) was a little more blunt. “You’d be nuts to ask for SAFETEA-LU levels,” he said. “That’s nuts.”

He told the transit professionals in the APTA crowd that they shouldn’t be shy about asking for significant funding increases. Whereas the Bike Summit last week stuck to a modest request (begging lawmakers not to slash the little funding cycling gets), LaTourette said the transit advocates would be “nuts” to take that route.

“How are we going to build America and put people back to work without robust funding in the transportation sector?” he asked. “If you don’t [ask for more funding], shame on you when your systems deteriorate.”

He said SAFETEA-LU wasn’t a good bill to begin with. From his position on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for 14 years, he worked on TEA-21, which he said was “a good piece of legislation.” But he said by the time SAFETEA-LU was completed — two years late — declining transportation revenues had lowered the bar, leaving lawmakers with a $286 billion bill to cover more than $400 billion worth of needs.

Plus, he said, the bill’s inclusion of hundreds of earmarks, including the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, made it the “poster child for what’s wrong with Washington.” After that, LaTourette said, transportation funding was marked in people’s minds as wasteful and inefficient, a reputation that “sticks with us today.”

But while everyone in Washington is gung-ho about a six-year bill, LaTourette is pessimistic about the odds. “I would love to tell you there’s going to be a six-year bill, but I don’t know how,” he said. “No one wants to address the funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.”

Whether we raise the gas tax at the pump or by the barrel, or start a vehicle-miles-traveled fee program, or toll more, we’re going to need more revenue, LaTourette said, but no one’s willing to do it. “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”

“You’ve got to get in people’s faces,” he told APTA participants. “You’ve got to go in and ask for something” — even of the “knuckledraggers that came in in the last election that hate taxes.” He said it’s only fair that people pay for the transportation infrastructure they use.

LaTourette said his former colleague on the Republican side of the House of Representatives, Ray LaHood, has “consumed the kool-aid” since joining the Obama administration. LaTourette criticized LaHood for suggesting an 18-month listening tour instead of coming up with a meaningful proposal. “We’ve known since SAFETEA-LU we needed to raise the gas tax,” he said. “What do you think they heard on their listening tour? ‘You need money.’”

LaTourette also reiterated his support for a Complete Streets bill, which he told cyclists last week that he would co-sponsor again this session. “We were surrounded by all these people wearing spandex clothing and muscles a lot bigger than they look normally,” he joked, and referred to his previous faux pas, saying the Highway Trust Fund shouldn’t be “invaded” for complete streets. “I’ve now been through the conversion,” he said. “I’m convinced that Complete Streets is a good piece of legislation… it not only has my co-sponsorship; it has my full support.”