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Transportation: From D.C.’s House to Your House

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - Watching the fate of the bipartisan and prudent $109 billion, two-year federal transportation spending bill passed by the Senate, (link) and now at serious risk of dying in the GOP-dominated House, gives the average taxpayer a rightful reason to believe his/her rights are being violated by the Right.
To suggest that the GOP is all-too-often wrong on transportation spending is all right.  But to suggest that the right-leaning House is the only problem in getting transportation funded is also all wrong.

After all, only a relatively-small fraction of the roughly $1 trillion 2009 Stimulus Bill, passed when Congress was dominated by Democrats, went to transportation.  Transportation was the big talking point of that stimulus bill, but too much of it went to failed alternative energy efforts (like Solyndra), as well as “affordable housing” and “education” initiatives that barfed out hundreds of billions of dollars that could have gone to defined transportation projects.

Not necessarily “shovel ready”, but defined and partially-planned projects and awaiting only federal funding to move forward over the next 1-3 years.  Furthermore, the overdue FIVE-YEAR reauthorization bill left over from the anti-transportation Bush Administration could have been passed by the then-Democratic Congress…but it wasn’t.

So now the GOP dominates the House—but while even conservative stalwarts like Senate Environment and Public Works Chair James Inhofe (R-OK) and House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) recognize that transportation/infrastructure is one of the few good things that Washington should be funding, too many other Congressional Republicans believe that all transportation is just pork-barrel spending and a waste of the taxpayer dollar.

Unfortunately, the Highway Trust Fund is broke and the 18-cent/gallon gas tax is just not enough to fund it.  It’s a huge debate over whether House Speaker John Boehner is spot-on or just dead wrong when he links the Keystone XL pipeline and oil revenues to transportation spending, but ideally we need a long-term, FIVE-YEAR fix that includes both planning and funding for our nation’s transportation needs.

Add to the mix that too many Democratic leaders look at transportation spending as “jobs bills” that are focused on short-term construction jobs and NOT on creating jobs by enhancing the growth of the private sector-based economy (the heart of true job creation and federal tax revenues), and the Republican argument of “transportation spending as welfare” appears to be confirmed.

One good case in point is the Desert Xpress project, which is seeking $4.9 billion in loans from the Obama Administration to create a 150 mph high-speed rail train between Las Vegas…and the remote city of Victorville. (Link)

Questions abound as to the cost-effectiveness and fiscal self-sustainability of those promoting this project, which include transportation officials and Vegas hobnobs, and which ideally would be connected to a future California High-Speed Rail (CAHSR) link to Palmdale (another project that’s the source of innumerable fiscal debates).

One particularly relevant question is whether Disney and Las Vegas are willing to pony up their own billions to finish the ideal connection from Las Vegas to Southern California (ideally Anaheim).  Most weekend Vegas getaway drivers know that just getting to Victorville on the I-15 is a chore that cries for a rail option.  And if those well-funded economic titans aren’t willing to pony up their funds, then why should the taxpayer?

Fortunately, the Brown Administration is listening to the private sector in refocusing the $10 billion in state-taxpayer-approved CAHSR bonds on Metrolink enhancements and the portion of the CAHSR project in and adjacent to the L.A. Basin (which could potentially link to the Desert Xpress), but risks backlash and rejection of those bonds this November if Governor Brown can’t fend off a threatened anti-CAHSR voter initiative.

And what’s the biggest tragedy of the ongoing House/Senate, GOP/Democratic Party divide over transportation?

It’s the loss of the opportunity for Los Angeles (and other cities and counties) to use local voter initiatives (like the half-cent sales tax increase of Measure R) to receive federal loans based on the revenues from these initiatives to fast-track and save interest costs on unquestionably worthy projects such as MetroRail to LAX and the Wilshire Subway.

Mayor Villaraigosa and others have been promoting America Fast Forward, with LA at the lead of a local/federal partnership to fund and expedite transportation projects. With the Expo Line slated to open next month from Downtown LA to La Cienega next month, to be followed shortly thereafter by an extension to Culver City, (link) our region and country will have a first-rate opportunity to observe whether new transportation initiatives are cost-effective, prudent investments for our economy.

Not just for a few short-term union/lobbyist-connected jobs, but for long-term, big-time economic growth.

But if the Expo Line is a success—my own guess is that it will be highly-utilized as an alternative for the very congested, and equally-popular I-10 freeway—then how do we pay for a five-year transportation bill in an era where “the Great Recession is over” but Washington is still spending over $1 trillion a year in debt?

Here’s another “guess”, but involves ignoring the arguments of “the Republicans are stupid, and hate all spending”, and the arguments of “the Democrats are stupid, and have no clue about balanced budgets”:  we grab tens of billions of dollars a year from mismanaged, inefficiently-spent budgetary priorities such as Defense and Social Services, and drag it kicking and screaming to Transportation and related Infrastructure.

In other words, keep it budget-neutral.  Certain self-obsessed lobbies will protest, but I doubt the taxpayers will.

Let’s bring taxpayer funds where they ought to be in the first place.  That ought to please virtually everyone’s house, from the House of Representatives to our own houses.

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

Tags: Ken Alpern, Los Angeles, LA Transportation, Transportation, GOP, John Boehner

Vol 10 Issue 25
Pub: Mar 27, 2012