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300-plus days and holding



Three-hundred and how many more days until we get a new president?

Two gross missteps by the Bush administration, this time tripping up badly needed national transportation improvements, make the question acute.

After two years of intense work, a broad-based, bipartisan federal transportation commission mandated by Congress unveiled America’s first-ever, 50- year balanced plan to repair and expand the highways, bridges, ports and rail systems the country needs to prosper internally and globally.

But because the report, released last month, pointed mostly to public funding instead of responding directly to “consumer demand” (meaning private financing), Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and the two other Bush administration appointees dissented, bemoaning the 12-member panel’s failure to “reach consensus.”

An industry analyst quoted by the National Corridors Initiative called their “consensus” remark “frankly pathetic,” noting that “a very bipartisan commission … has called for a major overhaul of the transportation system, and for the money to do the job.”

Others observed that if the federal government had waited for private, toll-collecting investors to build a national superhighway network, rather than President Eisenhower’s call for a system constructed with an overwhelming share of federal dollars, we’d have little more than a thin interstate patchwork today.

The transportation commissioners had the courage to say that upgrading and expanding U.S. transportation systems to world standards won’t come cheaply – they estimated $225 billion annually for the next 50 years. And they saw past “roads only,” focusing on an expanded freight system as well as repairing our highways and bridges, and making transit and intercity passenger rail a new priority in an ever-more metropolitan nation.

While endorsing more private investment, the commission faced the necessity of a dramatic rise in the federal gas tax, to 40 cents a gallon, indexed to inflation. And it sought accountability by combining today’s 108 federal transportation funding lines (for transit, highways, railroads, etc.) into 10 goal-oriented programs such as “Congestion Relief,” “Energy Security” and “Saving Lives.” The system would be performance-driven, outcome-based, mode-neutral – a far call from today’s morass of earmarked transportation projects and billions flowing to states for still more highways.

There are some weaknesses in the report, especially failure to deal with three major issues – how transportation choices impact climate change, how they relate to land use, and considerations of equity for Americans ill-served by today’s system.

But by throwing light on how our federal transportation program is a fundamentally broken system of earmarks and untargeted grants, notes Brookings Institution transportation expert Robert Puentes, the report undergirds growing congressional consensus that a new approach is imperative and should be built into the 2009 transportation reauthorization.

Making another damaging move during the 300-plus days it has left, the Bush administration, in a surprise move, also appears ready to scuttle the longawaited Metro rail connection to Washington’s Dulles International Airport in suburban Northern Virginia.

Political and business leaders in Virginia were stunned when Peters and Federal Transit Administration chief James S. Simpson suddenly raised enough purported weaknesses in the project – now on the brink of start-up construction – to justify vetoing the long-expected and critically needed $900 million federal contribution.

Efforts to build the Dulles line date back to the 1960s. The service would ease congestion in Northern Virginia’s biggest job corridor, with anticipated big spinoff benefits in clustered affordable housing, cutting serious air pollution levels, and providing an emergency evacuation route west from the capital.

In today’s world of major global citistates, jockeying for mobility and economic prowess, the Dulles rail extension should be a no-brainer – notwithstanding its eventual $5 billion pricetag. As The Washington Post noted editorially, airports in Chicago, Hong Kong, London, Tokyo and Sydney are all rail connected; should America’s capital city settle for anything less?

John W. Warner, Virginia’s senior and now retiring U.S. senator, a longtime supporter, was described as “livid” at the meeting where Peters and Simpson dropped their threatened veto bomb. Maybe Congress will have to override the administration, for common sense and in honor of the highly respected Warner.

The threatened Dulles line veto is “classic federal hubris,” notes Thomas Downs, transportation expert and former Amtrak president. While the federal $900 million contribution is critical, it’s less than 20 percent of the line’s cost, he observed, asking: Should federal bureaucrats “trump all local decision-making? Is that what this Republican administration has come to?”

At the end of the day, this shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Check most members of either party and they want a strong, economically efficient transportation system. This country is behind, we have lots of catching up to do. We can’t let ideology trip us up. That’s reality the next president – he or she, Republican or Democrat – will have to deal with.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com. ©2008 The Washington Post Writers

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