During my visit to Washington, D.C., for APTA's Legislative Conference March 10 to 14, I had the opportunity to hear numerous speeches from members of Congress and transportation industry leaders — two in particular caught my attention.
Air versus rail
During the Mineta Transportation Institute's 4th annual security summit ["Summit Assesses Rail Passenger Screening Tactics," May 2007, pg. 32], which convened at the close of the APTA conference, the topic was rail passenger screening. During keynote speaker Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's speech, he told the audience that he welcomed criticism about not spending nearly as much money on surface transportation as was being spent on air transportation, stating that the two modes could not be compared.
"We actually employ the screeners," Chertoff said. "I have not yet encountered a transit system that has requested to have us federalize a police force for them. Is there anybody here that wants to volunteer?" he said, adding that you couldn't compare what the federal government was doing for aviation because 60% to 65% of the money is spent on personnel. "We're not doing personnel for state and local governments."
Chertoff also mentioned that a great deal of the expenditures for aviation was for explosive detection equipment at airport portals. "That's not the architecture that I've heard anybody say they want at our subway stations and our commuter rail stations around the country."
Chertoff's comments were met with stunned silence. Maybe he got confused and thought he was speaking at the annual Air Transport Association meeting. Whatever the reason, I have to hand it to Chertoff for his brazenness in speaking before an audience of transit supporters chomping at the bit to get more security funding.
Voice from the Hill
On another note, I would like to mention a speech that caught my attention for another reason. During one morning's session, which read like a who's who in Congress, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) stood out because he seemed truly passionate about shepherding public transportation issues on the Hill.
Right off the bat, Blumenauer took a jab at the undoing of Amtrak. "If we had given the resources to Amtrak and not fired the person who was acknowledged as being a superb executive, David Gunn, I don't think it would have had some of the problems that it's experiencing today," he said, adding that he was surprised at any current success "given the slow starvation diet the [rail service] has been on."
He discussed national projects where lane miles were expanded, resulting in increased congestion, versus cities where investments were made in light rail and other transportation options, which led to less congestion.
Blumenauer touched on the depleted highway trust fund and the suggestions for supplementing it, including some of the experimental work being done in Oregon that deals with payment based on usage, such as mileage-based registration.
"I want to work with you to design mechanisms that are responsive to inflation and transportation demand — and a fixed-cent per gallon formula ain't going to cut it," he said.
He also took umbrage with colleagues that suggested cutting state gas taxes when gas prices began to skyrocket. "A typical political response, when we are shipping unprecedented sums to a few multinational oil companies ... when we're financing both sides of the war on terror."
While we may have heard these words before in some other fashion, his message was loud and clear. "If the federal government had given you a fraction of the resources we've given others, think what you could do," Blumenauer said. "You need a seat at the table as we tackle the issues of energy conservation, climate and urban sprawl."