The following event recap was written by Peter Derrick, transit historian and a visiting scholar at the Rudin Center.
Yesterday, May 14, Mitchell Moss, the Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, hosted a luncheon for Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster, who is on the House committee that is dealing with the Transportation Authorization bill. Shuster is a Republican who understands the importance of transportation and
other government infrastructure to the nation’s economy and society. He reminded me of a Republican New York State Senator, John D. Caemmerer, who was Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee from the mid 1970s to early 1980s, and who was instrumental in getting Richard Ravitch’s proposals regarding the funding and scope of the
first five-year MTA Capital Program for 1982-1986 approved in Albany, among many other accomplishments. I had the privilege of working for Senator Caemmerer (I should also note that I am a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center). The luncheon was well attended by a wide diversity of people in transportation and other infrastructure.
Schuster discussed the importance of transportation and then went on to talk about what is happening with the Transportation bill and other Congressional matters. He noted that Adam Smith (often held up as the godfather of free-enterprise capitalism) argued that there were three essential functions of government–security, justice and transportation. (Smith’s “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” was first published in 1776.) . He then went on to say that for 200 years the federal government has supported expansion and improvement of the nation’s transportation network, often under
Republican presidents. What must be done now is to rebuild public and political support for improving the nation’s public infrastructure, and to come to a long-term agreement as to how to pay for this. He also said that the project approval and implementation process needed to be greatly streamlined, aimed at reducing the time it takes to do a project by half. This would, he noted, save at least 10 to 15% of project costs resulting from inflation.
Shuster said that funding was a huge issue. He noted that the federal motor fuel tax is producing less revenue, but that for the moment “We’re not going to raise the gas tax.” He did say, however, that over the longer term all potential revenue sources needed to be examined, including raising the gas tax, a tax on vehicle mile traveled, tolls
on interstates, PPPs, etc. The intention is to look at all the options once the Transportation Authorization bill is approved later this year.
As for Authorization bill, Shuster said that he expected it to be approved by Congress and signed by the President in September or October of this year. The House bill now includes ongoing funding for transit as well as the road system. The final bill, he said, would
include the Keystone pipeline. Funding for transportation might include tax revenues from off-shore oil drillings. I can’t remember exactly how long the Authorization would be for, but I believe Shuster said it would be for up to 36 months. (Comments/corrections welcome
here–as well as on anything else.) He also said that he had not replaced Congressman Mica as the lead on the bill, but that, rather, he had become “Vice President of Marketing and Sales” with the intent of getting other Republicans to agree to it.
Lastly, Congressman Shuster made a strong argument that the transportation community and others need “to educate the American people” with respect to the importance of transportation and other infrastructure, such as water supply systems. For most citizens,
transportation is not even in their list of the top ten things government has to do. He said that transportation is “a core function of government,” but to build support for increases in long-term funding “the awareness of the American people” needed to be raised. He
urged a coordinated effort by transportation and other infrastructure professionals to do this. (Several speakers at the recent Regional Plan Association conference a few weeks ago made the same point.)
In the question and answer period, I asked the first question, about whether Congressman Shuster agreed with the statement made my Congressman Blumenauer (Democrat, Oregon–who is on the committee working on the Authorization bill) at the RPA session on financing that there would be a “grand bargain” on a host of fiscal/financial issues facing Congress later this year. Shuster said that he also thought this would happen, but that the main focus would be on changes to the tax system, with the funding of transportation being a lesser focus. He said he believed this would happen in November or December
if President Obama is reelected, and early next year if Mitt Romney is elected.
Somewhere during the meeting, Congressman Shuster said that he had visited the LIRR East Side Access project at Grand Central earlier in the day, and said that he believed that the project is essential for Long Island–including Queens–as well as for the Manhattan economy. He sidestepped a question about the cancellation of ARC, saying that “He (that is, Gov. Christie) didn’t have the money.”
Responding to a question about high speed rail in the USA, Shuster said that the California HSR project “is a terrible idea,” and that spending $60 to $100 billion on the middle piece was a form of blackmail to people in San Fransisco and Los Angeles. That is, that it
was intended to force them to come up with more money in the future to finish the project. He believes the only HSR project in the USA that makes sense is upgrading the Northeast Corridor so is can run trains at 130-150 mph.
Regarding the forced (by the feds) installation of automatic train control on rail transit (not commuter rail) lines, Schuster said this should not be done, since it would use up funds needed for more important projects. He said that the problem with the accident that
caused this potential requirement was with the operator, who was not following the rules.
There were also questions about several other issues. (Those of you who were there should feel free to add more.)
For another account of this meeting, see Andrea Bernstein in Transportation Nation: