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Former DOT head: Investment critical to ease congestion

The Honorable Ray LaHood

(Houston Chronicle) – Sometimes it’s easy to tell why you’re stuck in traffic. When it’s two slow-pokes driving side-by-side, or police cleaning up an accident scene because some joker jerked his way into the exit lane, you can shake your fist and move on.

On a larger level, however, the reason you’re stuck in traffic can’t be seen. It’s in City Hall, or Austin, or even Washington D.C. Right now, movement on transportation issues is not encouraging in any of these places, particularly on the federal level.

The topic of gridlock on gridlock in Washington was an easy place to start a conversation with former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood when he visited College Station in late March to give a speech sponsored by the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

“I think the answer is pretty simple but difficult to get to,” LaHood said of getting past partisanship and back to infrastructure investment. “Do what we’ve always done in America and pass a multi-year bill, and raise the gas tax 10 cents a gallon.”

The federal gasoline tax has been set at 18.4 cents since 1993, when tuition and fees at Harvard University was $23,514. A year of study in Cambridge, Mass., will now set you back $43,938 for tuition and fees, but you’ll still pay 18.4 cents to the federal government for every gallon of gas you buy.

Keeping the tax the same and expecting growth in population and driving to lead to revenue increases hasn’t worked. The Highway Trust Fund, the bank account for the gas tax, has been repeatedly bailed out because it isn’t bringing in enough money. It’s on the verge of insolvency again.

Meanwhile, former officials like LaHood aren’t optimistic when it comes to the highway system.

“America … is one big pothole right now because, I say, we have not invested over the last decade,” LaHood said, noting other major world economic powers like China are lapping the U.S. in infrastructure investment. “The simple solution is a big pot of money… The money that built the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam.”

Although federal officials have been unwilling to raise the gas tax, and some question increasing costs, they recognize the need for investment, he said.

“Congress will come to grips with their own leadership and they will have to raise the gas tax,” he said.

“America … is one big pothole right now because, I say, we have not invested over the last decade,” former transportation secretary Ray LaHood said. ( Gary Coronado / Houston Chronicle )

LaHood conceded that elected officials often cater to public sentiment that opposes all tax increases. But this can be overcome, he said.

“When you give people an opportunity to invest in infrastructure and pay for it, they do,” LaHood said. “Voters support these things. When you ask them to vote for infrastructure spending, 90 percent of those measures pass.”

When it comes to transportation, he said, investment is needed not only so people can get around, but for movement of goods as well. It’s a broken system that’s costing everyone, he said, and agrowing chorus is demanding action, even as cities and states carry more of the burden.

It’s not something Washington can solve on its own, but federal lawmakers play a vital role even if federal money isn’t a big share of the spending.

The 1 percent sales tax collected in Metropolitan Transit Authority’s service area – Harris County, Houston and 14 smaller cities – is the largest share of revenue for the region’s long-term transportation plan, followed by local government spending on street maintenance.

In fact, based on the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan prepared by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, only 13 percent of the region’s $76 billion transportation spending plan comes from federal sources over the next 25 years.

It is a vital 13 percent, said David Wurdlow, program manager for short range transportation planning at H-GAC. That federal money is usually the last piece of major projects, especially those on the freeway system or big transit projects.

LaHood said he agrees that states and especially cities are taking a greater lead in their own transportation planning. But federal officials should give them the tools and support needed, he said.

“You have to respond to what the real transportation needs are and it is more than roads and bridges,” LaHood said.

“If cities are going to be well positioned, cities have to have their plans in place now,” former transportation secretary Ray LaHood said. “Young people who live in Houston and Chicago could care less about having a car. If you are going to attract young people you have to have good transit.”  ( Gary Coronado / Houston Chronicle )

Chicago and Washington are investing wisely, he said, and laying out major projects to create growth. Houston, with its absence of zoning, can quickly react to market demands. Still, that forces local officials to decide how, and where, to encourage growth based on what they build in terms of roads and transit.

“Unless you have leaders with a vision who are willing to think far out and realize it takes bus rapid transit and light rail, you’re missing out,” he said. “If cities are going to be well positioned, cities have to have their plans in place now… Young people who live in Houston and Chicago could care less about having a car. If you are going to attract young people you have to have good transit.”

LaHood is also a big backer of high-speed rail, and when he was in the cabinet oversaw the economic stimulus program that encouraged states to think about bullet trains.

“I think Houston and Dallas and other cities have the opportunity to be the visionaries on this,” he said, referring to the private high-speed rail project under consideration in Texas.

The project has attracted many skeptics as well, but LaHood said those “nimbys” can be overcome.

“When Eisenhower signed the interstate bill, nobody wanted a road going through their neighborhood,” Lahood said.

Freeways and interstates lined with shops and warehouses are now arteries for how communities grow their commercial base. Trains that connect major metro areas like Houston and Dallas will have the same catalyst effect, he said, linking major job centers in a way that doesn’t displace rural areas.

“High speed rail is the next generation of transportation,” LaHood said. “It is what our generation will leave to the next generation.”

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