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The Non-Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation

Samuel Staley
January 15, 2010, 3:17pm

President Obama promised a lot of change on the campaign trail in 2008, but I'm not sure many people thought that one of those changes would be to convert the US Department of Transportation into a non-transportation department. One has to wonder based on the decisions coming out of the Department these days.

On Wednesday, for example, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that the transit projects would no longer be evaluated based primarily on cost-effectiveness and mobility criteria. Factors such as "livability" and "sustainability" will be more important as a way to qualify projects people liked but didn't quite muster up to approval when transportation and efficiency related criteria are used. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

The Obama administration said it was revamping rules on federal transit funding to funnel more of the money to streetcars, bus routes and other projects that promote "livability."

The new policy announced Wednesday, part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to use transportation and housing programs to reduce driving, contain sprawl and create transit-related jobs, could lift the fortunes of makers of light-rail and other transit equipment sold to states and cities.

Among more than 80 cities that could now qualify for funding are Seattle; Cincinnati; Boise, Idaho; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), who led the push for a federal program designed to promote transit projects. Transit-industry officials said many projects had been stymied by a Bush administration policy requiring the government to evaluate projects based largely on reducing commuting times at the lowest possible expense.

These polcy proposals are breathing new life into the Federal Transit Administration since little else other than transit is making it onto the federal transportation agenda. The Obama Administration, for example, has made high-speed rail (another transit project) a cornerstone of its national transportation policy goals.

The only driving related initiative is actually focused on reducing the utility of driving: Secretary LaHood has launched a major initiative to stamp out "distracted driving." No vision seems to exist for the Federal in highways, even though Secretary LaHood oversees the Federal Highway Administration. Congestion relief, a staple of the previous Administration, is not anywhere to be found on the agenda even though it affects far more people on a daily basis. The nation depends on automobiles, trucks, and other personal vehicles to get around for the vast majority of trips and travel. 

So, the real question is: If the transportaton department is not about improving transportation for the general public, what is it for? Apparently, its primary policy goal is to support broader Administration objectives, such as reducing Green House Gases and promoting "livable" urban environments (including retrofiting suburbs that it doesn't like).

Perhaps this is just a backdoor way for the Obama Administration to justify the elimination of transportation as a cabinet level function in the federal government.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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