At a National Press Club speech intended to promote the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) stimulus spending initiatives, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood explained how his policies are designed to discourage the ownership and use of automobiles. Although many imagine road building when “shovel-ready” projects are mentioned, the only efforts highlighted by LaHood as worthy of receiving federal taxpayer subsidy included buses, light rail and other forms of multi-modal transit. “We have $8 billion,” LaHood said. “You’re going to see new buses; you’re going to see ability of transit districts to really have the equipment . . . And we’ll begin at DOT to set a standard for our ability to get out of the recession, get people back to work in good-paying jobs.” LaHood says some of those federally funded jobs involve driving buses.
“Well, I’ve said that I’m open-minded about transit districts being able to use some of their money for operating,” LaHood said. “I think it’s a little bit silly to provide all of this money to transit districts to buy new buses if you can’t afford to have drivers and employees to use the equipment. And in these hard times, it is difficult sometimes for transit districts to have the operating money.”
LaHood insisted that he wanted to “think outside of the box” when searching for a source of operating money for the buses and the bus drivers. Imposing tolls on new and existing roads using the infrastructure bank endorsed by President Obama was at the top of the secretary’s list of revenue-raising initiatives.
“Well, now is not a very good time to be talking about raising taxes,” LaHood said. “Infrastructure bank is one thing we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about tolling . . . We need to find ways—other ways to do it—perhaps even public-private partnerships that have been used around the country very effectively.”
When asked whether this included a per-mile satellite-based tax, LaHood side-stepped the issue with a joke. The Transportation Secretary admitted that the new fees and regulations are designed to make driving less attractive. He suggested the only opposition to this policy is found in a recent Newsweek column in which George Will dubbed LaHood the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his plan to “transform” Americans out of their cars.
Notwithstanding the fact that George Will doesn’t like this idea—the idea of creating opportunities for people to get out of their cars—we’re working with the secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, on opportunities for housing, walking paths, biking paths . . . And that concept of livable communities is something that we’re going to promote and work with the committee on, because we think it’s the way forward. It’s the way to get people more opportunities, rather than just in their automobiles.
Much of these new opportunities will be paid for by diverting gas tax revenue paid by motorists into general funds that will cover the non-road related expenses. Already, such diversions amount to billions of dollars. In 2003, $18 billion in gas tax dollars were funneled into unrelated projects at the federal level, on top of the $9 billion diverted at the state and local level. LaHood explained his fundamental purpose in response to press questions seeking clarification.
“It is a way to coerce people out of their cars, yeah. Look, people don’t like spending an hour and a half getting to work. And people don’t like spending an hour going to the grocery store. And all of you who live around here know exactly what I’m talking about . . . About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives.”
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