Adding Up

Adding Up

Copyright 2009, Traffic World, Inc.

There were plenty of kind words and advice for Ray LaHood when President-elect Obama named the Illinois congressman last month as his choice for secretary of transportation, but perhaps the most important statement about his challenges came out of the Department of Transportation itself.

It came not in the praise from Secretary Mary E. Peters but more indirectly in a note a week earlier from the Federal Highway Administration.

The DOT agency said Dec. 12 highway miles driven in 2008 declined 3.5 percent, or 8.9 billion miles, from 2007. The agency helpfully added some analysis, noting the Highway Trust Fund saw a $3 billion shortfall in receipts in the past year, underscoring the need to make highway spending "less dependent on the amount of gas American drivers consume."

No, it does not show that. As the Association of Road and Transportation Builders helpfully noted after looking at the numbers from the Treasury Department, declining gasoline consumption actually reduced tax revenue 0.3 percent from the year before. The big hit to highway money was from the complete meltdown in truck and trailer sales, which sliced the revenue down some $2.4 billion.

That may sound like just a little math problem, but it's really about far more than that. The result DOT gets with vehicle miles traveled when it adds one plus one turns out to be privatization, which is the same result it gets with just about all its other data analysis.

That adds up to something far short of what the country needs from the DOT, which is a comprehensive, national approach to transportation that takes in the very multi-dimensional needs of the shippers, drivers, passengers and carriers - all of us, in other words - and addresses the role of transportation as a critical part of the national economy.

There have been many people suggesting the very specific challenges LaHood will face at DOT, but issues such as trucking hours of service and even the general state of the Highway Trust Fund really pale next to the very over-arching challenge the DOT faces under the new administration this year. That will be taking the various interests that for too long have been treated as separate and distinct - most familiarly divided up by mode but also sliced by geography - and bringing them together in a way that makes sense.

The DOT took steps in that direction during the Bush administration, most notably when it announced a few years ago a freight policy initiative. Unfortunately, it appears the plan to put that into action was lost when the DOT moved its headquarters a couple of years ago.

That leaves an opportunity for LaHood to come in with the initiative to back up that long-ago announcement, and to look at highways, waterways, railroads and ports not as distinct interests but as closely related and interconnected parts of a single economy built on the movement of commerce.

Once that very large view of a single transportation economy without modal silos and geographic divisions is in place, taking the right steps could become a matter of doing the math.