The National Press Club posted a video of Secretary of Behavior Modification Ray LaHood’s May 21 presentation in which he admitted that the administration’s goal is to “coerce people out of their cars.” The Antiplanner downloaded it (all 193 MB) and transcribed the relevant portion of the question-and-answer period to see if LaHood’s quotes were taken out of context.
The questions below are preceded by the minutes:seconds in the video where the question begins. LaHood’s answers are in bold and the Antiplanner’s comments are in italics.
16:53 Question: Everyone agrees that basing the highway trust fund on a federal gas tax won’t produce enough money during the next authorization bill to pay for the nation’s road and bridge upkeep, let alone new construction. What should be done?
Now is not a very good time to be talking about raising taxes and we agree with that. We think that people are out of work and the economy is in a recession and that it’s not a good time to be talking about raising the tax. The highway trust fund has been a very good source of funding. It’s helped us build the interstate system, helped us build a lot of infrastructure around America. We know that it’s inadequate to do all the things that we want to do over the next five years.
So we have to think outside the box. Infrastructure bank is one thing we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about tolling. We’re thinking about other kinds of opportunities that we can use with the highway trust fund. But this administration will not be promoting an increase in the gas tax. We know its been a good trust fund to fund roads and bridges. And we need to build on that and find other ways to do it. Perhaps even public-private partnerships that have been used around the country very effectively.
Comment: Not everyone agrees that the highway trust fund won’t produce enough money to maintain roads and bridges, but I guess people like former Secretary Mary Peters and LaHood’s fellow Republican Representative Jeff Flake no longer count. It is interesting that LaHood imagines we can use terms like “infrastructure bank” and “public-private partnership,” like waving a magic wand, to conjure up money out of nowhere. No matter what you call it, the money ultimately has to come from either users or taxpayers.
18:13 When do you expect Congress and Obama to enact a new highway spending law?
We’ve had a number of meetings with the chairman of the transportation committee in the House, Chairman Oberstar. He’ll have a very aggressive schedule I think coming off of the Memorial Day Recess to get a bill through the House. . . . I anticipate the House will pass a bill sometime this year.
Comment: It is amusing that the question assumes that Obama is going to enact the law. I hope most people know that Congress enacts laws, while the president carries them out.
19:22 Question: Will the administration offer its own version of the highway reauthorization bill?
The discussions we’ve had with the chairman we’ve laid out what we think are some of the things that are very important. We want to really — notwithstanding the fact that George Will doesn’t like this idea — the idea of creating opportunities for people to get out of their cars, and we’re working with the secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, for opportunities for housing, for walking paths, biking paths, if somebody wants to ride their to work or to the place of employment of other places; mass transit, light rail, creating opportunities for what we call livable communities, and Portland, Oregon is the example of it, where people don’t have to ride a car every time they want to go somewhere. They can walk, they can ride a bike, they can get on a Portland streetcar, which are manufactured in Portland, Oregon. That concept of livable communities is something that we’re going to promote and work with the committee on because we think it’s the way forward. It’s the way to get people more opportunities rather than just in their automobiles.
Comment: Only one streetcar to date has been manufactured in Portland (actually in the Portland suburb of Clackamas). But the real problem here is that — typical of the livability crowd — LaHood sees no difference between offering people a choice and offering a choice people will use. While the number of Portlanders who bicycle to work has definitely increased, the number who take transit has not.
The 2007 American Community Survey found that, since the 2000 census, the number of Portland-area residents who say they usually bicycle to work grew from about 6,800 to 15,900. But the number who say they take transit to work declined from 58,600 to 57,900. The number who go to work by car (not counting taxis) grew from 664,300 to 730,500. This means that Portland roads have about 60,000 more cars during rush hour, but the region has put most of its transportation dollars into light rail and streetcars that carry no more people.
LaHood also fails to distinguish between transportation people people want to use and transportation people are willing to pay for. He implies that, if someone wants to take a streetcar or light rail to work, all other taxpayers are obligated to subsidize them. What if someone wants to go to work by helicopter, dirigible, rocketship, or personal limousine? Does LaHood really believe that, just because someone wants something, the government should play Santa Claus and provide it?
20:38 Question: Two senior senators, Bingaman and Grassley, want the lane miles from any highway leased to a private entity to be removed from the calculations for distribution of highway fund money. Do you agree?
I don’t know anything about it. It’s all part of the debate. Ideas like this are a part of what we are thinking about when we say think outside the box. We’ll be happy to look at this.
Comment: Not known as an intellectual heavyweight, LaHood obviously doesn’t understand the question, which could be translated as, “Should states that do highway public-private partnerships be punished by losing some of their highway funds, which would then be given to other states as a reward for not doing public-private partnerships?” A case might be made that, since tollways pay for themselves, they shouldn’t be counted in the formula for distributing federal highway funds. But they are today and they still would be under Bingaman-Grassley proposal — it is only private or leased tollways that they object to. Even though Grassley is a Republican, this is fundamentally — dare I say it? — a socialist idea.
21:27 Question: Some in the highway supporters and motorists groups have been concerned by your livability initiative. Is this an effort to make driving more tortuous and to coerce people out of their cars?
It is a way to coerce people out of their cars, yeah. I mean I, look it, people don’t like spending an hour and a half getting to work. And people don’t like spending an hour going to the grocery store. All of you who live around here know exactly what I’m talking about. The dreaded thing is to have to run an errand on a weekend around here or to try and get home at 3 o’clock in the afternoon or even 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Every community is not going to be a livable community, but we have to create opportunities for people that do want to use a bicycle or want to walk or want to get on a streetcar or want to ride a light rail.
I was in Houston recently. They have a light rail line that runs from downtown Houston to what is probably the best medical center in the world. And for people who can’t afford a car who don’t want to drive through all the traffic of Houston to get out there, this light rail is perfect. That’s what we’re really trying to offer people and the only person that I’ve heard of who objects to this is George Will.
Comment: For those who haven’t been there, Houston’s light rail goes from nowhere to nowhere. Hardly anyone lives downtown; why would they take light rail to the medical center? Why is taking light rail to a medical center better than taking a bus?
More pertinently, livability supporters will argue that all of LaHood’s examples are not overtly coercive; instead, they are simply aimed at giving people choices other than driving: walkways, bike paths, streetcars, light rail. LaHood never mentions any actual techniques aimed at coercing people out of their cars.
Yet coerciveness is a fundamental part of the livability campaign, as shown by Portland, Oregon, whose official objective (see table 1.2) is to allow rush-hour traffic to grow to near-gridlock levels (Ã¢â‚¬Âlevel of service FÃ¢â‚¬Â) on many major freeways and arterials. Besides diverting federal highway money into light rail instead of things that will actually relieve congestion, much of the money that Portland does spend on roads goes into “traffic calming,” a euphemism for “congestion building” which consists of putting barriers in roads, speed humps, narrowing streets, and turning auto lanes into exclusive bike lanes.
22:56 Question: Some conservative groups are wary of the livable communities program, saying it’s an example of government intrusion into people’s lives. How do you respond?
About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives.
Comment: That was his entire answer to the question, so I guess it wasn’t taken out of context.
Beyond the moral and constitutional question of whether government should have the right to intrude into people’s lives is the more practical question of whether the benefits of such intrusions justify their costs. In the case of Portland, the costs include a nearly twelve-fold increase in the costs of congestion between 1982 and 2005, the more than $2 billion spent on light rail, and nearly $2 billion spent on subsidies to transit-oriented developments. Meanwhile, the benefits include a lot of New York Times articles making Portlanders feeling smug about themselves, but not much else except for the lucky (or politically connected) few getting the subsidies.