Last month, while speaking at the Washington Post Fixing America’s Foundation: Rebuilding Transportation Infrastructure conference, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cemented his legacy. As The Journal of Commerce reported, the DOT secretary “ripped into newly elected Republicans Friday for blocking efforts to launch a new infrastructure program, saying they want to keep President Obama from having success.”
Obviously, the secretary may have been falling on his sword to defend the Obama administration’s terrible record on transportation-related initiatives. But there’s no excuse for the secretary’s embarrassing lack of knowledge, facts or perspective on the infrastructure issue. Perhaps the secretary could benefit from a little history lesson.
The fact is, when President Obama was sworn in on a sea of rhetoric about hope and change, he had a Congress and Senate that was controlled by his fellow Democrats. More importantly, in Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., he had a knowledgeable and motivated person serving as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Oberstar was very focused from the start of 2009 on the impending expiration of the surface transportation reauthorization bill known as SAFETEA-LU, and more commonly called the highway bill, on Sept. 30, 2009. He let it be known that he was willing to carry the water for the administration and advance a highway bill with an estimated price tag of between $450 billion and $500 billion. This was a significant increase over the funding levels of SAFETEA-LU, which so many of us believed was inadequate at the final level of $286 billion.
Unfortunately, the administration let it be known that it had other priorities (the failed stimulus bill, Dodd-Frank and, of course, health care, to name a few), and had no interest in creating, passing or even discussing a new highway bill. Instead, Congress was forced to rely on continuing resolutions to fund the highway program.
Oberstar’s moment as chairman of the committee ended at the end of 2010 when he was among a long parade of Democrats swept out in those midterm elections. He’s gone into something like retirement since that election, but he hasn’t lost touch with the state of infrastructure and the inaction in Washington. Over the past year I have met with Rep. Oberstar several times. He remains one of the most knowledgeable individuals on transportation infrastructure issues I know. And he has shared his frustration in the inability of our leadership in Washington to do the right thing for America by passing a robust transportation infrastructure bill.
Just contrast LaHood’s performance with that of his predecessor, Norman Mineta. You didn’t hear Mineta as transportation secretary whining that America has become one giant pothole, or that the Democrats were to blame for the contentious debate about SAFETEA-LU. Using his vast political experience, Mineta took the lead in working with Congress to pass SAFETEA-LU.
Unfortunately, Secretary LaHood has been infected with the same blame-game disease that is the hallmark of this administration. What the secretary should say is something like this:
“For the first two years, my department and this administration failed to understand the importance of investing in America’s transportation infrastructure. We took the easy way out and relied upon continuing resolutions to fund our highway programs. But now we understand that by investing in our transportation infrastructure, we can actually create the kind of meaningful private sector jobs that we failed to create with our misguided and ill-conceived stimulus bill in 2009.
“We’re sorry and would like to put this behind us. So instead of blaming the Republican Congress for our failure, we would welcome the opportunity to work together with them to invest in our transportation infrastructure and do the right thing for America.”
Anybody remotely familiar with the highway legislation issue understands the real problem. Investing in our highways will require a lot more money than is being generated by the gas tax, now the principal source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. To their credit, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., are trying to come up with a solution.
Mr. Secretary, stop blaming others and start working on a solution. Instead of playing the blame game, here is a better idea: Convince the American public that an investment in infrastructure will require money but will pay dividends for years to come.
The failure to pass a new transportation infrastructure bill has nothing to do with hurting President Obama’s re-election chances.
No one wants to vote on any legislation that increases the gas tax, creates a vehicle mileage tax, or increases other user fees to pay for this legislation. The Democrats wouldn’t do it when they controlled the House prior to 2011; Republicans aren’t going to do it prior to 2012.
Michael Regan is president of TranzAct Technologies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.