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Weekend Update: Transit Funding; Chicago Congestion Fees; Ontario HSR

Quick news updates:

  • Congressman James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is looking to dramatically improve mass transit’s share of total federal transportation outlays, reports the Wall Street Journal. This would be a dramatic improvement, as transit currently receives 25% of the total allocations put towards highways; Oberstar wants to increase that percentage to 40% – $12 billion in the next year alone.
  • As we reported last week, the failure of the auto bailout would also mean that the transit agencies that had lost big bucks because of the failure of companies like AIG would not be bailed out. However, the Washington Post reports today that Senators and House members are pressuring President Bush to include aid for transit in his Treasury-financed GM and Chrysler package. But, unless the pressure’s increased, the administration isn’t going to do anything about it, which in some ways makes sense, for reasons we’ve discussed before.
  • Economic advisers to the Ontario Premier are suggesting that Canada could benefit from a large high-speed rail system centered around Toronto. The network’s more than 500-km of track would cost up to $20 billion to build and take years of construction time to be implemented, but it would make sense, especially if it were connected to the high-speed network that neighboring Quebec wants to see built.

Ray LaHood's Transportation Background

Ray LaHood’s candidature as new Secretary of the Department of Transportation has now been confirmed by a number of media outlets. This Illinois Representative will be the only registered Republican in President-elect Obama’s candidate, which is a sad commentary on how Mr. Obama envisions the role of the DOT in his administration.

That said, Mr. LaHood’s record has been notable for some of its bipartisan stances, including his willingness to override the objections of his fellow Republicans and vote for the recent Amtrak reauthorization bill.

But what, exactly, is Mr. LaHood’s special background in transportation? What makes him uniquely qualified to lead this department? The answer, as of now, is not clear; he hasn’t made transportation much of a priority during his career. More than anything, it looks like Mr. Obama used the Transportation slot to stick in a moderate Republicans in order to make his cabinet seem bipartisan – but he didn’t choose a Republican with any specific interest in transportation.

Over the years, Mr. LaHood has been involved in some related issues in his district, though. Here’s a quick list:

  • Last year, Mr. LaHood argued openly that the idea of Amtrak coming to his native Peoria was a far-fetched one that should instead be replaced with bus service to other cities. He dismissed calls for a long-term plan for Amtrak service there and did nothing in Congress to improve the chances for that city’s rail accessibility.
  • He also has worked to mothball an existing rail right-of-way and replace it with a greenway, an idea that would be nice for walkers and bikers but make it difficult to envision mass transit on the route in the future.
  • This year, he did sponsor a bill to improve the ability of people to claim tax exemptions for transit ridership, a good thing considering that currently it is far easier to get tax refunds for automobile commuting than for taking public transportation.
  • Back in 2005, he helped work to get funds for the improvement of a road in Illinois.

So, Mr. LaHood’s record on transportation matters is mixed and not particularly impressive. Though he has voted for Amtrak and seems to be interested in supporting mass transit, he hasn’t worked hard on either issue. He also has never come out against the extreme levels of automobile use that continue to plague our society.

As usual, we at the transport politic remain optimistic – it’s quite possible that this man will be a great agent of change and improvement in the transportation field. But the initial signs do not look bright.