THE VINE MARCH 19, 2009
Greenwire's Josh Voorhees has an insightful piece about how new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is trying to be cautious about what he says these days, especially after causing a minor fracas last month when he publicly suggested a per-mile tax on driving. (Our own Rob Inglis strained mightily to defend the idea, but it got thwacked down by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.) But here's some vintage LaHood freelancing I can get behind:
LaHood suggested it may be time for lawmakers to cut red tape that prevents some transit agencies from using federal dollars to cover operating costs but interrupted himself to offer a disclaimer that Obama might not feel the same way. "I'm speaking for myself now, OK?" LaHood said.
"I want to be open-minded that some of these funds could be operational funds," he told the panel. "Now, that's Ray LaHood's point of view. I want to work with the administration. I want to work with all of you. I want to work with these folks that are in a real pickle right now about trying to find out how they are going to pay their bus drivers and train drivers and all of their engineers."
Now, we covered this ad nauseum back during the stimulus debate, but using stimulus funds to backstop the operating costs of transit agencies, many of which are cutting back services and raising fares right now, is a terrific idea. As best I could find out, there were two reasons why this never happened. One was aridly procedural: House staffers told me that Congress would have had to open a whole new revenue stream to funnel federal money into transit operating costs, and the House rules committee had declared during the stimulus debate that it would only allow amendments that boosted funds for existing programs. (Snooze, I know...) There was, however, an already-existing channel for mass-transit construction which is why a $2 billion amendment for new capital projects was allowed through.
The other rationale was that policymakers didn't want transit agencies to get too dependent on the federal teat for their operating budgets. Fine, but we're in a severe economic contraction! Isn't this sort of a special case? Giving money temporarily to bus and rail agencies so that they can reduce fares and expand services would be a quick and efficient stimulus. Well, no matter. It didn't happen. But LaHood thinks it's a good idea. He should speak out more and not be so defensive, no? (On the other hand, it seems like LaHood's been relegated to the relative margins when it comes to policymaking in the Obama White House, so maybe he's not really in a position to do so.)
Another weird bit from the Greenwire piece is that LaHood, a former Republican House member, apparently still feels torn between his old buddies on the Hill and his current, Democratic boss. So when Obama wanted to alter the way transportation funds were accounted for in the budget and House members opposed it, LaHood refused to take sides, trying to find some middle ground. It's sort of a weird stance for a cabinet member to take—you'd think ideally he'd stand up for the administration's position—but maybe, in some way, this actually gives the White House's transportation agenda more credibility in Congress. Not sure.