Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood is moving on. In an e-mail to DOT employees announcing his plans to leave, LaHood highlighted what he considers to be “remarkable accomplishments” during his four years leading the agency:
We helped jumpstart the economy and put our fellow Americans back to work with $48 billion in transportation funding from the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009, and awarded over $3.1 billion in TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] grants to 218 transportation projects across the Nation…[and] we have taken transportation into the 21st century with…our investments in passenger and High-Speed Rail.
Despite promises out of Washington, the stimulus bill did not rev up the economy. Using the Secretary’s figures, it did, however, leave the private sector with $48 billion less to spend.
TIGER grants are competitive grants that DOT awards to fund road, transit, and port projects. They have given the Obama Administration great leeway in choosing how to spend a portion of transportation funds; consequently, states have had less control.
TIGER grant projects do not necessarily provide cost-effective mobility or reduce traffic congestion. Some fiscal year 2012 grants went toward developing 4 miles of bicycle and walking paths in Washington, D.C., building a 1.4-mile streetcar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and upgrading the Main Street Trolley and Main Street Mall—a mixed-use pedestrian thoroughfare—in Memphis, Tennessee. Congress should end such grant programs and allow the states to keep and spend those funds on priorities of their choosing, preferably on projects which make roads easier and safer to drive on.
As for high-speed rail, the phrase “taxpayer-funded boondoggle” is more fitting. Take the planned high-speed train from Victorville, California, to Las Vegas, Nevada, as an example. Wendell Cox, a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, describes the tremendous financial risk that the project poses to taxpayers, due to spectacularly optimistic ridership and revenue estimates:
At this likely level of ridership, default on the federal loan seems likely to occur sometime in the first decade. If the costs of building the train increase, as the Oxford University research has documented for other projects, the line might be only partially completed, with the states of Nevada and California—and their local governments—being faced with the potential of a huge financial bailout.
Unlike California’s governor—but following in the footsteps of the governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio—Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) outright rejected a $2.4 billion federal grant for the proposed Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail line. Scott recognized that Florida taxpayers could very well be on the hook for paying for operating subsidies and project cost overruns, and even repaying the grant if the trains—full or otherwise—did not run often enough.
If remarkable achievements require a Washington-centric approach to transportation—and spending money on costly, inefficient programs—then many of this Administration’s transportation policies to date fit the bill. Yet the states, and especially their motorists who fund the transportation program, deserve better.
The next person to take the helm at DOT must be someone with a clear commitment to serving the needs of motorists through increased mobility and safety. He or she should work with Congress to reform transportation policy—namely, to provide states with more flexibility and control over transportation funding and spending decisions.