At a National Press Club event last year, a panel moderator decided to quiz Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on his department's policy. "Some in the highway-supporters motorist groups have been concerned by your livability initiative," he said. "Is this an effort to make driving more torturous and to coerce people out of their cars?"
"It is a way to coerce people out of their cars," answered LaHood, with a blunt frankness rare for a politician.
These days, the Department of Transportation is sticking its nose into everyone's lives. DOT has teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development to create the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Their actual purpose is somewhat foggy and loaded with Orwellian language -- something about creating more "livable" and "healthy" environments. As transportation goes, that means creating more "choices" for commuters: the choice to leave your car at home and take the train, for example. Or ride your bike. Or walk.
It's an alarming fact that's eluded even many conservative commentators: The core of the president's progressive agenda is to fundamentally change in the way we move from one point to another.
American transportation is dominated by the car. According to a USA Today study, 91% of Americans drive to work. Another study by Experian Automotive found that an American household has an average of 2.28 cars in the garage. That's a dire crisis for a president who thinks the entire economy should "go green." With cap-and-trade having gone rigor mortis in Congress, the Obama Administration needed easier ways to create serious environmental change.
Enter the Department of Transportation. Prior to the Obama presidency, the DOT was of relatively small importance, spending its time enforcing obscure railroad regulations and trying to get people to buckle up. The department gained some attention during the Bush Administration after airline screeners were nationalized under its authority, but it still took a backseat to most other cabinet-level federal agencies.
But with the Obama agenda in full swing, the DOT has come front and center. Joe Biden even called Secretary LaHood "the star of the Cabinet." Much of this attention is thanks to LaHood's fiery crusades against Toyota, but that's not the whole picture. Obama wants a major shift in transportation policy and LaHood is overseeing it.
As LaHood wrote not long ago, "Today, I want to announce a sea change. People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."
Perhaps LaHood's most important responsibility so far has been the awarding of $1.5 billion in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. Recipients were supposed to be transportation projects that "will have a significant impact on the Nation, a metropolitan area or a region." But many of LaHood's choices seemed like sepia-toned throwbacks to the Industrial Era. One was a $23 million grant for a bike path through Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. Many more went to rail projects. Others were aimed at green bugaboos and had little to do with transportation at all. One $22.3 million grant went to a business park in Rhode Island that's home to several wind power companies.
Fourteen of the TIGER grants were spent on projects that were "multimodal" -- a new buzz word in the Obama age referring to multiple modes of transportation. In Obama's America, seen through a dreamy progressive lens, just as many people travel on trains and bicycles as in cars. At least LaHood, who bikes on the weekends, is leading by example.
Another product of the DOT-EPA collaboration was the recent clampdown in mileage standards. Under the new rules, car companies must have a fleet average of 35.5 miles a gallon by 2016 -- up from an average 27.5 miles per gallon today. It's a massive increase with a short amount of time for car companies to comply. Automakers' only real solution is to put popular truck and SUV models -- like the 14 mpg Ford F-150 -- on the chopping block and invest more in hybrid cars.
Previously, these regulations have been run through Congress. But after a Supreme Court ruling gave the executive branch unilateral authority to enforce the Clean Air Act, the EPA and DOT can pretty much do whatever they want.
One of LaHood's allies in Congress, Rep. James Oberstar, has introduced a bill that would essentially federalize the nation's entire transportation network. Called the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009, the legislation frets that states have "great discretion to shift [federal transportation] funds between programs" and bemoans the "lack of clear Federal priorities and system-wide objectives" for transportation. In other words, grey-suited managers in Washington don't have enough power to dictate transportation projects.
To solve this problem, the bill has the federal government gobbling up transportation power from the states and forcing them to meet certain benchmarks. States are essentially coerced to make sure their transportation networks are environmentally friendly and include plenty of rail lines and buses. How bad is it? The bill actually requires the DOT to create an U.S. Bicycle Route System similar to our interstate highways. Yes, the progressive Oberstar actually imagines a day when so many people will travel by bicycle that we'll need transcontinental bike paths. I believe there's a word for that: "China".
The Heritage Foundation's Ronald Utt concludes that the STAA would "shift substantial numbers of passengers from cars to public transit and nonmotorized forms of transportation." The entire bill would cost an estimated $500 billion over six years, which would require a 112% increase in the federal gas tax.
Of that $500 billion, $50 billion is allotted for the development of America's very own high-speed rail network. Currently the Acela line in the northeast is the only HSR in the whole country, and for good reason. As Utt points out, high-speed rail is one of the most expensive and least effective methods of transportation ever devised. The DOT's own inspector general has estimated that reducing travel time between New York City and Boston via Acela by 30 minutes cost the government $14 billion, while reducing car usage by less than one percent.
This is the vision of the Obama Administration: shifting from the all-American car to glorified 19th-century technology. One Republican congressman informed of LaHood's cycling priorities recently wondered if the DOT head was on drugs. It almost seems too absurd to digest.
Then again, when your whole worldview is shaped by the eschatology of a world hurtling towards an environmental apocalypse, suddenly reversion and coercion make sense.
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