Leave Transit Projects to Transit Experts, Not Politicians

Stephen Smith sheds light on the problems of leadership holding back Obama's dream of high-speed rail.
November 21, 2012, 9am PST | Ryan Lue
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Center for Neighborhood Technology

When President Barack Obama first set goals for his federal transportation legacy, he aimed high: access to high-speed rail for 80 percent of Americans within 25 years. Now, at the close of his first term, California is the only state with an HSR system scheduled for completion on-time. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likely prepares to step down next year, Smith argues, it may be prudent for the President to reevaluate the leadership platform of the Transportation Department.

Smith writes, "David Gunn, the president of Amtrak from 2002 to 2005, cited a lack of technical knowledge as the biggest problem at the Transportation Department, which he said has devolved into 'an agency that just distributes money.' " In California, for example, the development and operation of HSR was entrusted to the "California High-Speed Rail Authority, which has little operational experience and a barebones staff." In the process, federal authorities effectively shut out freight rail and Amtrak California, whose collective expertise is critical to the success of the system, according to Gunn.

And it's not merely new projects that suffer from such leadership decisions. "Right now, air, highway and rail interests frequently compete against one another to fill the same need. The government often finances projects to widen and build new highways parallel to new rail routes, depressing ridership and limiting the cost-effectiveness of transit."

Smith concludes, "Other transit analysts, such as Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation, a research group, agreed that it might be time for a transportation secretary from a technical rather than political background. (The office is sometimes used for bipartisan gestures: LaHood, Obama’s first-term transportation secretary, was a Republican U.S. representative from Illinois, and Norman Mineta, who served under George W. Bush for five years, was a Democratic congressman.) "

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Published on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 in Bloomberg
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