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.”