By Lawrence Messina
Charleston, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood expressed confidence Monday that the promise of jobs will help ensure passage of a measure this year that would pay for the nation’s aging infrastructure, despite the divide in Congress over government spending and the federal debt.
LaHood also promoted President Barack Obama’s push for more high-speed rail as the keynote speaker at the International Transportation and Economic Development Conference in Charleston.
The former Republican U.S. House member from Illinois said his tenure on Capitol Hill saw several multi-year transportation bills succeed by wide margins.
“There are no Democratic and Republican roads. There are no Democratic or Republican bridges,” LaHood said. “Transportation is bipartisan.”
But several members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation who preceded LaHood touched on the largely party-line split over the federal budget.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chairs that chamber’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, blasted the budget plan approved by the House last month. It relies too heavily on tax cuts for the wealthy, which it would offset with slashed spending at a time when the nation must replace 90,000 miles of highway, 70,000 bridges and a 1950s-era air traffic control system, he said.
“To put it bluntly, our transportation system is inadequate, and in some cases an embarrassment to what we aspire to as a nation and a global leader,” Rockefeller said.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also outlined the country’s array of infrastructure needs.
“We have the technology to order a pizza online, for example, but trucks have to wait in line at marine ports because we don’t use a high-tech scheduling system for picking up cargo,” Rahall said.
He also was critical of the Republican plan, saying it would reduce federal transportation spending by $318 billion over the next decade. He argued that every $1 billion invested in transportation yields 36,000 jobs and $6.2 billion in economic activity.
“Without a doubt, the surest pathways to opportunity and success are America’s railways, roadways and runways,” Rahall said.
GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who also serves on the committee with Rahall, said the House-passed proposal aimed to set national priorities at a time when Congress must decide whether to increase the federal debt limit.
“We’ve got to figure out a way together to get the heavy burden of debt and deficit off the back of our future so we can move forward with the projects that we all want,” Capito said. “The good news is we all know that our bridges and roads, and airports and rail need repair, need development and need future expansion.”
LaHood predicted that Congress would find a way to balance tackling the debt with sufficient spending on transportation. He said the recent federal stimulus devoted $48 billion to 15,000 transportation projects, providing 65,000 jobs.
Calling Obama’s six-year, $560 billion proposal in this arena a “big bold vision,” LaHood focused on its call for a national high-speed rail system that would link 80 percent of Americans in the next 25 years.
“That will be the next generation of transportation for the next generation,” LaHood said. “The previous generation gave us the interstate system. It took us 50 years to do it, but we have a state-of-the-art interstate system. The last generation gave us a state-of-the-act freight rail system.”
Reception to Obama’s rail proposal has been mixed. Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently canceled a Tampa-Orlando high-rail project, rejecting $2.4 billion in federal funds. But LaHood said his department since had received $10 billion worth of requests for that withdrawn money.
Speaking to reporters after his speech, LaHood also praised Rockefeller for his efforts to target distracted driving. The secretary said accidents involving smart phone-using drivers killed 5,500 people in 2009, and injured 450,000.
Rockefeller, meanwhile, expressed support for the Corridor H highway and continued money for the federal Essential Air Service program. It offers subsidies to air lines for less-profitable routes. These often involve airports in rural or remote communities, including four in West Virginia. The GOP-led House has sought to end the program, saying it serves too few people
“I’m a chairman of the conference committee” negotiating a compromise on that bill, Rockefeller told The Associated Press after his speech. “I’m not going to sign on to something that doesn’t have it.”
The Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute organized the three-day conference, which began Sunday.