Oberstar’s Grand Plan

Chairman Oberstar and the leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee want to spend $500 billion on surface transportation over the next six years. This is a huge increase over the $338 billion authorized over the last six years.

Page 4 of the plan’s executive summary “provides $337.4 billion for highways.” But, in fact, only $100 billion of this is dedicated to highways; most of the rest is in “flexible funds” such as CMAQ and the Surface Transportation Fund that can be spent on either highways or transit. Nearly $100 billion goes for transit, and $50 billion goes for high-speed rail. The remaining $12.4 billion goes for safety programs.

We get some more clues about the $337.4 billion that supposedly goes for highways in the detailed plan. The chapter for the Federal Highway Administration proposes to consolidate the major programs normally dedicated to highways, including the Interstate Maintenance Fund and National Highway System Fund, into one fund that gets $100 million. This fund is dismissed after a mere three of the 25 pages discussing the Federal Highway Administration (pp. 16-18).

Most of the rest of the so-called highway chapter describes “flexible” funds, meaning they can be spent on either highways or transit. The highway chapter also has provisions for “livability” and smart-growth planning.

For example, as a part of highway planning, Oberstar proposes to require that metropolitan areas engage in land-use planning that aims to reduce single-occupancy driving, protect farmlands, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — in other words, smart growth (p. 24). He also wants to reorganize the Department of Transportation, creating an “Office of Livability” within the Federal Highway Administration (p. 38) and an “Office of Intermodalism” overseeing the highway and other bureaus (p. 7).

The previous reauthorization effectively allocated 20 percent of funds to transit and 80 percent to highways. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Oberstar’s plan turns this upside down, dedicating only 20 percent to highways and potentially spending 80 percent on transit and high-speed rail.

Page 38 explains that this is because past transit investments have “paid off” so well: transit carried 10.7 billion trips in 2008. The fact that this represents less than 1 percent of passenger transport is discreetly overlooked. But cyclists will be glad to know that the plan creates a national system of bike routes.

For those who truly care about mobility and not rhetoric, the saving grace is that the government is running out of money and cannot possibly afford Oberstar’s program. Even the Highway Trust Fund has run dry, long before they spent the $338 billion authorized in the last bill. No one has any idea where Oberstar thinks he is going to find $500 billion.

As a result, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on behalf of the Obama administration, wants to delay reauthorization for 18 months. Of course, Oberstar thinks this is a bad idea — it delays his moment in the sun, possibly until a time when he no longer chairs the committee. What a tragedy that would be.

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17 thoughts on “Oberstar’s Grand Plan

  1. John Thacker

    LaHood wants to delay reauthorization, sure, but he wants to pay for the extension with another “emergency” influx of General Fund money, he says.

    Of course, Rep. Oberstar wants to spend tons more money but hasn’t figured out a way to pay for it, either.

  2. hkelly1

    “metropolitan areas engage in land-use planning that aims to reduce single-occupancy driving, protect farmlands, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions”

    Oh my gosh – that sounds so terrible!! Why would anyone want to do a thing like stop wasting land and curb environmental harm?

    “For those who truly care about mobility and not rhetoric…”

    There are actually other pursuits in the world besides jumping in the car and heading off into the sunset… I for one am glad that some of the others are finally getting some attention. Mind you, all of these efforts are to bring the car back in stride with other demands like land conservation, walkability, etc., which were forgotten in the second half of the 20th century in favor of car, car, car.

    Once again, the AP reveals his bias for the car, which HE defines as freedom – we are free to choose the car and nothing else.

  3. Frank

    Once again, the AP reveals his bias for the car, which HE defines as freedom – we are free to choose the car and nothing else.

    What a distortion.

    I think the AP would be just fine with non-governmental light rail that doesn’t depend on coercion and result in enormous bureaucracy and waste. Nothing I’ve read on this site indicates the AP wants only cars as a mode of transportation. Rather, cars are more efficient and affordable than government public transportation boondoggles like the Eastside Commuter Rail that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

  4. Mike

    hkelly1: What Frank said. The problem isn’t that transit is being built at all — it’s that it is being built by government and is causing a much greater negative economic impact than its proponents admit. The only powers government has are to exert force and spend money. If they’re doing either of those things badly, and in this case they are, that should be cause for alarm among the electorate.

  5. hkelly1

    Frank: it’s very cavalier to say that “someone” could build non-governmental light rail when the transit-oriented development that such a “someone” would need to support that rail is ILLEGAL under current zoning codes. The world is coded for single-use, low-density, car-oriented development. Of course no one could even attempt to build their own light rail line because the market is NOT free, but regulated for cars.

    By the way, I agree completely that most new transit initiatives planned by government are boondoggles.

  6. Dan

    I think the AP would be just fine with non-governmental light rail that doesn’t depend on coercion and result in enormous bureaucracy and waste.

    and

    The problem isn’t that transit is being built at all — it’s that it is being built by government

    By this “logic”, a profitable and efficient ding-dang gummint light rail/alternative transport would still be bad. Gotcha.

    Let us know when private investors find low-density autocentrioc McSuburbs pencil out for transit and when private investors take responsibility for public goods. Oh, wait: we see the vaunted prrrRRRRRrrr-iiivate! sector elbowing it’s vaunted way into public schools. Looks like that isn’t the wonderful solutioning the market fetishists claimed. One wonders why solution sets for intractable human condition are so difficult…

    DS

  7. Francis King

    hkelly1 could be right:

    “Once again, the AP reveals his bias for the car, which HE defines as freedom – we are free to choose the car and nothing else.”

    I’m not sure quite about the ‘nothing else’ bit, yet even so there appears to be some bias, and much talk of ‘freedom’.

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=1452

    Antiplanner:

    “But of course, the real goal of the rail people is not to save energy but to reshape American lifestyles. They just can’t stand to see people enjoying the freedom of being able to go where they want, when they want to get there.”

  8. Frank

    “Frank: it’s very cavalier to say that ‘someone’ could build non-governmental light rail…”

    It’s also even more cavalier to put words in my mouth. Look at my post again. I didn’t say that “someone” could or should do anything.

  9. Frank

    “Oh, wait: we see the vaunted prrrRRRRRrrr-iiivate! sector elbowing it’s [sic] vaunted way into public schools.”

    So off-topic and so grammatically incorrect. You must be a product of public schools.

  10. Francis King

    On the general topic under discussion – I am not surprised that they are running out of money. In the UK, there are a heap of things, most of them a waste of money, which are going to be ditched just as soon as the government can do so without losing face.

    A national system of bike routes is a bit pointless. A person can only cycle so far, and the potential routes around town are best identified at local level – just how much federal funding is required to roll in some crushed rock to form a route? What cyclists need is 20mph speed limits on most roads (so they can keep up with the traffic); bicycle training (the standard of cycling in the UK is a joke, and I suspect not much better in the USA); modern bicycle designs which are safe, go up hills properly, and are weather proof (the work has been done, but is being studiously ignored); and secure parking (because the best bicycles are very expensive).

  11. Dan

    So off-topic and so grammatically incorrect. You must be a product of public schools.

    Here, I’ll type slowly: a frequent element of a solution set for this site’s ideology is privatization (privatisation). Privatization does not overcome the human condition either.

    There! Get it? No OT, despite your need for it to be so, in order to have play.

    DS

  12. Frank

    Gosh, Dan, thanks for setting me straight. I *totally* see how private schools’ claimed “elbowing” into public education’s 90% “market share” (read: coercive government monopoly) has anything all at all to do with surface transportation!

    If you’re a government planner who’s being paid with taxpayer money to make thousands of comments on this blog while at work, you epitomize government bureaucracy and inefficiency.

    Get back to work.

  13. Mike

    Frank: You can ignore Dan — he’s a troll. Notice how, in his reply to me, he cut my sentence in half in order to make a point that was mooted by the remainder of my sentence. As if any reader didn’t have the capability to scroll up, read my original post, and see what was originally written. You are offering something to this discussion, and he never does.

  14. Dan

    Dig: I italicized two commenter points about my view of the source of angst and ennui about the plan in the post (with some admittedly colorful technique). Then I supplied both an example of the private market’s unwillingness to fill AP’s implicit vacuum in delivering a particular public good, and a related example of a different public good where there was an obvious failure of the standard ideological solution set. I then concluded with a restatement of the issue and an open-ended question for reflection.

    The…um… expostulation has been instructive, to say the least.

    Let us hope this is neither the cutting edge of the ideation nor the public voice of the small-minority ideology. For everyone’s sake.

    DS

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