The Great Debate

A road paved with sand

Bills have been introduced into both the House and the Senate to dismantle the federal government’s role in interstate highways and leave that massive responsibility to individual states. Tea Party adherents and other conservatives are applauding this effort. The Interstate Highway System, they argue, was largely completed in the 1980s and local communities should provide their own transportation needs.

The new transportation bill proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Ga.) however, tragically misses the mark when it comes to our national infrastructure needs. Their legislation would abandon the highway trust fund just when our roads and highways are most in need of reconstruction, repair and expansion.

Though many voters are demanding a check on big government, our elected officials need to remember that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution a federal obligation to build and maintain a national infrastructure. Localizing responsibility for the Interstate Highway System is a complete disconnect from how the world’s largest economy works.

Our interstate highways benefit the entire nation, as well as individual regions and states. For example, the port of Hampton Roads, Virginia, is our nation’s sixth-busiest harbor for all types of goods into and out of the country. From Hampton Roads, I-64 brings commerce to West Virginia and Kentucky. It connects with I-81 to Tennessee and the West, and with I-95 to the entire eastern seaboard. Without this national transportation system, what chance would residents of West Virginia, for example, have to export the $9 billion in trade they now send around the globe?

In addition, if the interstate system was largely completed 30 years ago, why should we continue to pay federal gas taxes to fund it?

Ray LaHood was, surprisingly, the right man for the job

Urbanists were excited by President Obama’s election in 2008, as it heralded the first time in a century that a president would come from a major city. And Obama was not just a resident of Chicago, he had worked as a community organizer. On the campaign trail he promised groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors that – after years of neglect under Republicans – his tenure would feature federal cooperation with, and attention to, cities.

So they were dismayed when Obama picked Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Peoria, Illinois, for Secretary of Transportation. It appeared that Obama had subjugated urban interests to his desire to appear bipartisan.

That was especially worrisome because federal transportation policy was overdue for a change. Democrats, and a handful of Northern Republicans, are becoming concerned about the nation’s massive infrastructure deficit, and are calling for a transportation policy envisioning bolder solutions. As the price of gasoline rises, climate change wreaks more havoc, and the millennial generation returns to the cities that their parents forsook, there is an increasing demand for alternatives to new highways, such as bicycle lanes, sidewalks, trains and buses. Urban policy wonks feared that LaHood ‑ who announced his retirement earlier this month ‑ would not promote these views.

A simple plan to relieve airport congestion

D.J. Gribbin, a former general counsel for the United States Department of Transportation, contributed to this column.

The bankruptcy filing by American Airlines a few months ago signals that the U.S. aviation industry is once again primed for dramatic change.  American Airlines is the last of the major U.S. carriers to seek bankruptcy protection, as most of the other big carriers have completed restructurings or mergers that have reduced the number of full-service carriers from seven in 2005 to just four today.

Industry consolidation can be a mixed bag for the flying public. Mergers can deliver efficiencies from scale, but they can also decrease competition. American Airlines has now become the latest acquisition target, perhaps by US Airways or Delta Air Lines. Against this shifting landscape within the industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took an important step to help ensure that consumers continue to benefit from airline competition, especially when they want to swap assets. Instead of allowing airlines to swap some of their operations at the nation’s largest airports – in an effort to further concentrate their shares of regional markets – the FAA wisely chose to initiate the nation’s first-ever “slot auction” at the end of 2011. The long-term benefits for the flying public from this precedent are potentially tremendous.

The urgent need to protect the global supply chain

Every day, staggering numbers of air, land and sea passengers, as well as millions of tons of cargo, move between nations. International trade and commerce has long driven the development of nations and provided unprecedented economic growth. Indeed, our future prosperity depends upon it.

At the same time, threats to trade and travel — whether from explosives hidden in a passenger’s clothing or inside a ship’s cargo, or from a natural disaster — remind us of the need for security and resilience within the global supply chain. A vulnerability or gap in any part of the world has the ability to affect the flow of goods and people thousands of miles away. For instance, just three days after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear tragedies struck Japan last March, U.S. automakers began cutting shifts and idling some plants at home. In the days that followed, they did the same at their factories in more than 10 countries around the world.

Ten years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we also continue to see the determination of individuals and groups to disrupt economies by targeting our transit and cargo systems. Understanding the seriousness of these threats underscores the need for a continued focus on protecting the global supply chain.

More taxis mean more traffic

“There’s something for everyone,” exulted New York City taxi czar David Yassky over the December agreement between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to expand taxi service. The disabled get 2,000 new wheelchair-accessible yellow cabs, up from around 250 at present. Outer-borough residents get the right to hail non-yellow “livery” cabs instead of having to phone for them. And the city gets a billion-dollar “one shot” from auctioning medallions for the new yellow cabs.

Oh, and all New Yorkers get something they need like a hole in the head: a permanent jolt of new gridlock from the extra taxi traffic.

No one mentioned traffic when the taxi deal was rolled out last month at City Hall and in Albany. After all, with 800,000 motor vehicles already entering the Manhattan Central Business District (CBD) each weekday, what difference could a mere 2,000 additional yellow cabs possibly make?

A better way to fund roads

diana-furchtgottroth–- Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed are her own. –-

Just as motorists began the summer driving season, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress that the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by August.   Rising gasoline prices and the recession mean less driving, and less driving means lower revenues from gasoline taxes for the Highway Trust Fund.

At the same time, President Obama wants to spend $13 billion as a downpayment on high-speed rail, an expensive form of transportation that will reach only small segments of the country and that will not substitute for highways.  The money would be better spent on developing a more stable  source of revenue for highways, based on miles driven rather than gasoline used, that would help to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.