Miss. DOT chief rips ObamaÆs transport policies
Mississippi Department of Transportation's executive director, a staunch Democrat, on Tuesday castigated the Obama administration for its transportation priorities and for diluting the effectiveness of $1.5 billion in recent multimodal grants.
Larry L. 'Butch' Brown, who is also president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), took particular aim at Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for what he termed a 'mind-boggling' bias against highway investment in favor of mass transit and bike paths.
'I'm so angry with my administration right now,' Brown said in a speech to the American Association of Port Authorities meeting in Washington.
The former mayor of Natchez, Miss., criticized LaHood for recent statements that the U.S. highway system is fully built, doesn't need new capacity and only requires preservation.
'How can a man say that our system is built out? Truck traffic is doubling about every 12 years. But we're built out. We should only keep the roads in and out of your ports where they are today.
'That's not fair. That's not right. It's not real.'
Last month the American Highway Users Alliance, which represents a diverse cross-section of groups such as motorists and truckers, urged Congress to reject the Obama administration's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal that would divert $200 million for highways into a new 'livable communities' grant program. The money would come from the Highway Trust Fund, which drivers contribute to through fuel taxes and user fees on commercial vehicles.
Freight interests and other surface transportation users are worried funding levels are already falling far behind the amount necessary to repair crumbling roadways and bridges, with nothing left to address bottlenecks and other efficiency improvements. Congress recently shifted $19.5 billion to the Highway Trust Fund to keep it in the black because receipts are less than existing obligations under a multiyear spending plan.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing & Urban Development on a sustainable communities initiative, part of which is designed to provide more transportation options for commuters, reduce reliance on foreign oil, and improve air quality and public health.
The DOT two weeks ago issued a policy statement stressing the importance of providing federal aid for walkways and bicycle paths to support livable communities. Under the new policy, the department will ensure that safe, convenient bicycle and pedestrian facilities are incorporated into the planning and development of transportation projects. The statement encourages other levels of government, transportation agencies and community organizations to adopt similar policies and consider 'walking and bicycling as equals to other transportation modes.'
AASHTO supports mass transit and passenger rail, but they should not take precedence over every other mode, Brown said.
'Ninety-seven percent of all trips taken in America is on a roadway. Yet this administration is spending its time focusing on urban mass transit. It's good. We embrace it. We like it. It's needed in certain places.
'I don't have any urban mass transit in Mississippi. I don't have any in Wyoming, or Fargo, South Dakota. It doesn't exist,' he said.
Bike paths and walkways have merit too, Brown said, but they're no substitute for moving freight.
'Let me ask you something. When was the last time you saw bread and milk delivered to a grocery store on a subway system?' the Mississippi transportation chief asked. 'We have to have new capacity. We have to have a way to move goods.'
States already spend federal money on trails and bike paths through a transportation enhancement fund, but Brown said the scales are tipping too far towards those types of amenities.
'It's frightening when it gets to the secretary of transportation level and to say bicycle paths and walking trails are as important as highways,' he said.
Brown also said the DOT spread too thinly the $1.5 billion in TIGER grants awarded last month to 52 projects with money provided in the 2009 Recovery Act.
The American Highway Users Alliance complained that only 42 percent of the discretionary, merit-based grants awarded by DOT went to highway projects. Freight projects raked in $730 million, or 48.6 percent of the money, depending on scoring for highway projects, which have the dual purpose of moving motorists. Bike paths got more TIGER grant funds than ports.
Brown was upset by any measure, saying major freight projects received a pittance compared to their scope. The largest grant went to the Crescent Corridor, a $2.5 billion public-private partnership between Norfolk Southern railroad, states and the federal government for passing tracks, double-stack clearances, improved signaling and other features to improve speed and capacity on the rail network between Louisiana and New Jersey. Norfolk Southern requested $300 million from the transportation investment program and received $105 million.
'That's just enough to make your mouth water,' Brown said.
He complained the Port of Gulfport in Mississippi only received $20 million for an $80 million to $100 million project to build an intermodal connection to Hattiesburg, which will force port officials to seek out earmarks from their state delegation in Washington.
He also drew attention to the $34 million awarded to the Alamada Corridor East project for grade separation work. 'That won't buy the right of way for two city blocks,' he quipped.
The DOT would have been better off concentrating its grant awards in one area such as the Mississippi River system for new locks, dredging and other needs, Brown said.
Shippers and barge carriers that depend on waterways to haul agriculture products, fuel and other bulk products have pleaded with the federal government to appropriate more money from user fees and other sources, and develop an expedited project delivery process, to fix aging locks and dams on the inland waterways. Outages for repairs cause severe transportation delays and stakeholders fear that a major lock failure will force the shutdown of river traffic for an extensive period.
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that more than 625 million tons, valued at $70 billion, of liquid and bulk commodities, including grains, coal, metals, cement, sand and gravel, chemicals and petroleum, pass through the inland waterway system each year. More than half of the country's grain and oilseed exports rely on the river system for transport to ports for loading onto deep-sea vessels. Barges also move about 20 percent of the coal needed by power plants.
The Mississippi River system also needs to be properly maintained and upgraded, Brown said, to take advantage of additional trade opportunities that will arise with the opening of new vessel capacity in the Panama Canal in 2015. He warned that the federal government is waiting too long to address the plight of the inland waterways in the same way it ignored the sub par levee system in New Orleans until after the flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina.
'When are we gonna recognize the value of that system to the rest of our economy?' he exclaimed.
Brown said the federal government has an obligation to support ports with direct funding the way it does for highways, and that the formula programs should be adjusted to reflect some sharing of the revenue stream because ports and highways are part of an interconnected system for moving goods. ' Eric Kulisch