Sparks Fly as Lawmaker Grills LaHood on Columbia River Crossing Transit

From the beginning of today’s hearing, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee made it clear they weren’t going to let Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s last appearance before them be an easy one. While the hearing’s purpose was to examine the department’s budget request, the tough questions LaHood fielded on the budget were nothing compared to the fight one lawmaker picked about the Columbia River Crossing.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler wants to take light rail out of the Columbia River Crossing.

Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Tom Latham derided the administration request for $50 billion for “immediate transportation investments” as “a proposal we’ve seen three times before” which, like the 2009 stimulus package, is “not paid for or offset by reductions elsewhere.” He dismissed the plan to pay for transportation with war savings as “dubious,” saying, “Many members hope that the drawdown of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will provide an opportunity to reduce spending and the deficit, and not serve as excuse for even more spending.”

LaHood told Latham he “can’t have it both ways.”

“The first two years I was in this job you all criticized us for not coming up with a way to fund transportation,” LaHood said. “For the last two years, after receiving criticism for the first two years, for no funding, we’ve come up with a funding mechanism.”

Even worse than defending a gimmicky pay-for, LaHood tied himself in knots promising the U.S. DOT “has never promoted building anything to get anywhere faster.” He defended this position when it came to the Columbia River Crossing in the Portland area, which Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler raked him over the coals for, and even for high-speed rail, which he pledged was not actually about increasing speeds. A weird position, indeed.

Latham noted that the administration budget proposal included $40 billion for rail and wondered when the administration might send over a draft proposal of the rail reauthorization those numbers are based on. He reminded LaHood that the administration never actually sent a draft surface transportation reauthorization.

LaHood tried to turn the tables on Latham, saying the president was busy with guns, immigration and the sequester, and when Congress does its work on those three issues, Obama will bring out his bold plans for transportation. LaHood has made this argument before, and it’s one I find perplexing. Isn’t that why there are Cabinet secretaries, with thousands of people working under them? No one at DOT is working on guns and immigration, but I bet someone there has a pretty good handle on their plans for the next rail bill.

The real fireworks came when Herrera Beutler started in on the secretary for his support for the Columbia River Crossing. She wants to take light rail out of the project and make it BRT instead. She said the transit on the bridge is going to be the most expensive light rail in the country, though she bungled the estimate, saying, it was “$293 million for a 2.9 mile expansion, so it’s $293 million per mile.” She compared that to what she said was a national average of $35 million per mile. (A recent study showed capital costs for one light rail mile to be about $80 million, actually – compared to BRT’s average per-mile price of $452 million $25 million.)

That’s when she asked if it was really worth it to shave one minute off commute time and LaHood said, “we don’t promote building roads or bridges to get places faster.” Over and over, he made the argument that he owed it to the people who have spent 10 years planning the bridge to get it done, an argument which Herrera Beutler easily shot down.

“We take our cues from the people that are in charge,” LaHood said, to which she retorted, “Well, guess what? I’m one of those now.”

She said the light rail deck makes the bridge too low for ships to pass under, making the engineering of it unpermittable.

Many advocates agree with Herrera Beutler that the CRC is a massive boondoggle of a road-widening project, though they tend to think light rail is its one redeeming factor, not the reason the whole thing should be thrown out.

LaHood spent a little more time in the land of make-believe when he insisted that, despite what the railroad industry says, Positive Train Control mandates would take effect, on schedule, in 2015. After all, safety is the department’s number one priority. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) gave him ample opportunity to preserve the commitment to safety but also acknowledge that there is widespread concern about the deadline, and he wouldn’t do it. He said the problems were financial, not technical, and DOT will put money into it.

Everyone’s favorite discretionary grant program got a mention, too: LaHood let it slip that the fifth round of TIGER grants, totaling $475 million, will be announced Friday. Latham wanted to know if it wouldn’t make sense to use an authorized program, like Projects of National and Regional Significance, instead of an unauthorized program like TIGER, which was invented by the stimulus and has been kept alive through subsequent appropriations?

LaHood basically told him to lighten up. “You all like TIGER,” he said. “Somebody around here does. We’ve had five programs!”

Latham noted that PNRS was authorized in MAP-21 but only for one year. He asked whether there was really any evidence that DOT is using TIGER for projects of national importance, and LaHood pivoted immediately to TIFIA, which has attracted 29 letters of interest so far.

Finally, LaHood pledged that the president’s vision for high-speed rail “has not been blurred or diminished.” When asked about the department’s priorities going forward – with him or without him – LaHood put high-speed rail at the top of the list.

“There’s no secret around here about what the president’s vision is for the next generation of transportation,” he said. “That’s high-speed rail. That’s the president’s vision. He announced it four years ago. We’ve invested $12 billion. I’ve been to 18 countries looking at high-speed rail. And the common theme in every country is a federal investment, a national government investment, the way we did with the interstate system.”

Though it’s clear LaHood and Latham don’t agree on much of anything, Latham was genuine when he thanked LaHood for his service at the end of the hearing and said that he was sorry to see LaHood go. He thanked him for his leadership on safety, especially texting while driving, and then said, “You defend the indefensible pretty well sometimes” – a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one.