Lowlights From the Transpo Bill Hearing: A Tea Partier Tries to De-Fund Transit

Last week’s stakeholder extravaganza in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee brought out the best and worst ideas about how to reform the transportation sector. We highlighted some of the good stuff earlier. Now for the bad and the ugly.

Sharon Calvert

Really, out of 40 (count ‘em!) witnesses at this mother of all transportation hearings, only one put forth the really, really bad idea of taking away transit’s dedicated funding. Maybe we could have ignored it and allowed her idea to disappear into the ether. Indeed, when I asked Secretary Ray LaHood and Rep. John Mica recently how they respond to calls to take transit out of the Highway Trust Fund, they both looked at me like I’d grown two heads. People really suggest that?

Yes, people really suggest that. So we thought we’d give her a special shout-out to the one who did, just so she knows we were listening.

Sharon Calvert represented the Florida Alliance, a Tea Party group with no clear transportation mission. It’s not entirely clear why she was there, except that she’s from John Mica’s home state and when he stopped by the hearing, he paid her many compliments, saying hers was one of the “most activist groups we’ve ever seen influencing national policy” and that “the Tea Party folks are well represented by her presentation.”

Her presentation began with the assertion that taxpayers want input into the bill because “we are the users and the funders of the transportation projects.” She said limited resources should be reserved for “the must-do needs, and not the nice-to do expenditures.” And so the Highway Trust Fund has to revert to its “core functions.”

That means no money should be “diverted” to transit and that all transportation projects should pass cost-effectiveness criteria, she said, and that those projects “must not consider livability criteria, which are subjective and cannot be well-defined or quantified. Immeasurable livability objectives perversely justify projects that increase traffic congestion, increase travel times, and raise housing prices.”

“Transit projects,” she went on, “should be approved only if they improve automobile travel times and if they do it at a lower cost per passenger-mile than any alternative, including expansion of highways.”

She pointed to a Senate bill, introduced by South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, often ranked the most conservative member of the Senate, which would reduce the gas tax from 18.4 cents to 3.7 cents and drastically reduce the trust fund’s scope; as well as a House bill introduced by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, which would allow a state to essentially take back its own contribution to the trust fund instead of taking whatever the federal government allocates it.

For what it’s worth, she’s okay with buses as long as they’re privately-run, like the ones in Atlantic City, she said.

Rep. John Duncan, who chairs the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, somewhat chillingly praised her for her “very fine testimony.”

And, not to pick on Calvert, but later, when Rep. Peter DeFazio named three major transportation reports and asked if any of the 20 witnesses who had just testified hadn’t read all three of them, she was the only one who raised her hand. Maybe she was just the only one being honest.

(The reports DeFazio mentioned, in case you want to test your own transportation literacy, are “Paying Our Way: A New Framework for Transportation Finance” report [PDF], the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission Report (both done when Republican controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, DeFazio noted, and both of which suggested significant jumps in the levels of transportation funding) and the report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers [PDF].)

Calvert’s testimony was by far the most outrageous, but Greg Cohen of the American Highway Users Alliance did his part to dilute environmental protections, disempower the federal government, co-opt the language of sustainability, and pretend that the endless addition of new road capacity was the only way to relieve congestion.

Let’s start with the environmental protections. Many people have raised concerns about project delays, and many have pointed to NEPA, the federal environmental law, as a source of many of those delays. California now does its own environmental reviews of projects, and having those reviews done at the state level has unquestionably sped up the process. California was empowered to do that, however, because the state has stronger environmental laws than the feds. Should other states with weak environmental protections be able to do the same? That’s what Greg Cohen would like to see. He wants all states, regardless of their environmental record, to do their own reviews. He calls it “streamlining.”

Cohen also registered his concern with the infrastructure bank proposal, saying it “gives the USDOT staff sole authority to select the projects that receive funding.” He wants less discretion for the federal government and more formula funds for states to distribute based on criteria set by Congress without administration “micromanaging.” He said he supported making “greater use” of the general fund, which is code for deficit spending, which no one has any appetite for.

Then it got really disgusting when Cohen said, “People drive to participate in the economy, to access the full range of services and products that improve their lives. All this driving is actually good for America and good for livability.”

Luckily, there appear to be many people in Congress who understand that livability isn’t all about sitting in traffic. Like Rep. Grace Napolitano, a Democrat from Los Angeles. She’s not the first person you think of when you think of Congressional transit champions, but maybe she should be.

Acknowledging the suggestion to remove the mass transit account from the Highway Trust Fund, she simply said, “We’re 13 million people in L.A. county. It takes mass transit.”

  • Bob Davis

    Grace Napolitano has appeared at Gold Line Foothill Extension ceremonies (along with Rep. David Dreier (Republican)), so both of them have “transit credibility”.

  • Scott Mercer

    Apparently Grace actually has her head on straight. But then, she represents an area (part of Los Angeles County) where hundreds of thousands of people actually want, need and use mass transit on a daily basis. Jeff Flake, not so much. He’s from a lightly populated part of Arizona. Not too hard to understand the motivations of both of them.

  • Frank T.

    Livability is a subjective word. It means different things to different people. There’s nothing wrong with making the case that highway mobility is also form of livability. Sitting in traffic certainly is not. That seemed to be Cohen’s point.

  • Frank T.

    I also didn’t see anything in Cohen’s testimony that supported Tanya’s view that he claimed “that the endless addition of new capacity was the only way to relieve congestion.” It seems like you just like to bash his group because it represents motorists — shouldn’t they also have a voice? The AHUA testimony actually seemed quite reasonable on transit funding — unlike the TEA partier.

  • Whether or not she likes it, cars are also transit, along with all the pavement needed to make them work. The financial problem with cars is, it’s cost ineffective. That’s really my favorite part about people against “transit” who claim to be “fiscally conservative.” They are basically favoring that we spend what ends up being more on roads. So they’re really their own worst enemy as they’re favoring projects that’ll require more taxes and larger government.

  • Wally Lutz

    Ms. Calvert, the only person in 40(!) representing the US taxpayer (all others were begging for our money), is suggesting we spend the gas tax on our failing roads and bridges, which has billions in backlogs in repairs long overdue, largely since the money is collected to states, laundered through Washington, siphoned off to Amtrak, light rail to nowhere, and the latest shiny boondoggle high speed rail, along with 7,000 other earmarks on transportation. Would you rather have a reliable road and bridge network, or empty, money losing trains? They don’t work in most of the US, and even the DC Metro, one of the best systems, which I enjoy using, had to be bailed out by the US taxpayers. With a $1.6T federal deficit, sorry, you’ll have to make some choices. You can’t have it all.

  • Ms. Calvert believes that non-riders should not have to pay for riders. Imagine that. Making people pay for the services they enjoy, rather than milking others for it. Sounds good to me.

    Ms. Calvert is the head of noTaxForTracks.com, a group that successfully defeated a one cent sales tax hike in her area in November. She and her group were also instrumental in influencing Gov. Scott’s decision not to take federal money for the Tampa-Orlando high-cost rail project. That is why she was invited to speak to the committee.

    Apparently, this blog is not as well-informed as Ms. Calvert.

  • Jass

    Milk, considering property taxes pay for most roads, and I dont own a car, where can I sign up to have my money not go to pay for those with cars? I’m tired of subsidizing those people.

    I also dont have children in schools, so Im going to need that cash back too. And I disagree with the iraq war, so Id also like a check for that one.

    And personally, I know when I see firemen respond to a fire, I wish they dropped off a $10,000 bill once theyre done spraying the house down. I shouldnt pay for peoples bad electrical wiring.

  • Gabriel Roth

    Tanya Snyder does not seem to understand that the hearing was not about the merits of transit, but about the federal role. If transit users are not prepared to pay for the services they want, they should surely seek help from local, not national, taxpayers.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t own a car and yet I pay taxes in order to fund highway projects out to the middle of nowhere, so that people can drive their cars to and from places that I never plan to visit. To me that sounds like I’m being milked to pay for services that others enjoy. What does it sound like to you?

  • Dlovaas

    The American Highway Users Alliance is not mostly “motorists.” Their board? The American Trucking Association, Tire Industry Association, National Automobile Dealers Association, Salt Institute, NuStar Energy, LLP, Chrysler, LLP, Lafarge in North America Cement Division, UPS, GM, 3M, Toyota, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, American Moving and Storage Association, American Bus Association and the American Petroleum Institute.

  • Anonymous

    “Transit projects should be approved only if they improve automobile travel times and if they do it at a lower cost per passenger-mile than any alternative, including expansion of highways.” — Sharon Calvert

    I think this quote right here is a pretty clear indication that Calvert intends the benefits of expanding highways to be the standard to which all other transportation-oriented projects should be compared.

    The only problem is that expanding highways actually creates more traffic, so any transit project that even marginally reduces traffic would need to be approved under her plan. So she’s kind of shooting herself in the foot if you ask me 🙂 Her only defense would be the length of time at which you track the benefits of transit projects and highway expansion projects. In the short term, transit projects are very expensive but have tremendous long-term benefits. In the short term, highway expansion is less expensive but has long-term costs. Motorists should have a voice, they just need to realize what they’re saying.

  • I’ll agree with that when drivers are prepared to pay for the services they want, which is something they currently don’t even come close to doing.

  • Yes, and when motorists start to pay for more than 50% of the cost of building roads you’ll have a decent argument.

  • AHSRA

    Transportation infrastructure is a fundamental element in our nation’s economy and American way of life. Young Americans are going to be particularly affected by decisions made today and their long term implications. The American High Speed Rail Alliance invites you to join our White House Young American Roundtable this April for a discussion on 21st Century transportation needs. For more information, please visit our facebook page at: http://on.fb.me/ibqVKk

  • Gcohen

    You’re missing a few, Deron! 🙂

  • Gnncnn381

    i think Sharon Calvert should be arrested for mischief of government she needs to be in prison !!!

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