Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday the administration will remain undaunted in its efforts to expand passenger rail service, despite the fact that governors have rejected funding for those projects.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- all newly elected Republicans -- have turned down a combined $3.6 billion in federal funds for commuter rail projects in recent months. Those governors had argued that even with the federal aid, their states might have been on the hook for billions if the projects weren't successful. The administration's goal is to provide 80 percent of Americans with access to high-speed passenger rail systems in the next 25 years. Yet Ohio and Florida, two of the country's most populous states, have turned down funding for those projects. "America is ready for high-speed, inter-city rail, and the fact that 35 states have accepted the money is proof of it," LaHood said in response to a question from Governing. LaHood was speaking at a meeting of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials in Washington. He said in the last two weeks, at least six governors and senators have contacted his office to say they're moving forward with plans and would like to accept additional funding if becomes available. Scott, of Florida, had argued that if the proposed Tampa-Orlando rail line proved too costly and was shut down, taxpayers would have to return the $2.4 billion originally set aside for his state. If the project was successful but had cost overruns, taxpayers of Florida could have been liable for upwards of $3 billion, Scott said when rejected the funding two weeks ago. The White House has made passenger rail a high-profile priority. The stimulus bill provided $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, and the president's proposed 2012 budget released last month calls for $8 billion to be spent on passenger rail next year. Over the next six years, the federal government would invest $53 billion in passenger rail projects under the administration's plan. LaHood also addressed other subjects with members of the audience, several of whom inquired whether the federal government would increase the gas tax. LaHood said an increase "is not on the table." The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1993, and as a result of inflation, its purchasing power has decreased by a third in that time, according to a Department of Transportation report. The tax, which funds the Highway Trust Fund, has taken on greater significance as House Republicans have approved rules that would prevent Congress from spending highway funds beyond what's in that account. "At this point, the president just believes with the economy where it's at, and so many people out of work, that it's very difficult to be proposing a gas tax [increase]," LaHood said. He also endorsed tolling interstate highways as a way to increase transportation funding. LaHood said his department "likes tolling" as a means to pay for additional transportation capacity. "We believe in tolling," LaHood said. "I think if states come to us with good plans for tolling we will look at them very carefully." He said his department has endorsed tolling as a way to fund bridges connecting Washington to Oregon and Kentucky to Indiana. A proposal by Pennsylvania last year to add tolls to Interstate 80 was rejected by DOT, LaHood said, because it would have used the funding for other purposes. Otherwise, his department will endorse the plans, LaHood said. "You can ran raise a lot of money with tolls, and if states decide that's the way they want to go -- as long as you're building more capacity -- that's really what we're gonna look at," he said. LaHood also touted the president's transportation budget, which calls for a six-year, $556 billion surface re-authorization plan that would modernize infrastructure while creating jobs. "I don't know of another time in the history of transportation any president has been so bold to put forth such a plan and such a big vision," LaHood said. He said he expects Congress have a surface transportation bill on the president's desk by time the legislature takes its August recess. House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica, who also attended AASHTO's conference and will play a key role in crafting that legislation, vehemently endorsed a six-year plan. "Anyone who talks about anything less -- I'll take you outside and beat the crap out of you," Mica joked. Mica said the country needs a long-term transportation plan after the previous surface transportation bill has been extended six times. State and local transportation leaders say those sporadic extensions make it difficult to perform long-term planning due to the uncertainty about funding.