Polly Trottenberg: Road Warrior

Sean McCormick

If you live long enough, old friends occasionally make something out of their lives.

Take Polly Trottenberg. Last time I saw her, a little over twenty years ago, she was a sassy young Barnard graduate from Boston. We were in New Orleans one evening during Jazz Fest, enjoying Sazerac cocktails with mutual pals and watching one of the many reincarnations of the Neville Brothers delivering the funk well after midnight at Tipitina's.

We fell out of touch. I heard she had studied public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School and had taken a job with the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, but only recently I read that she had just been confirmed by the Senate as the Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy under Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, having done stints with Senators Charles Schumer and Barbara Boxer and become an expert in matters near and dear to Automobile Magazine readers' hearts-roads, highways, and transportation policy. So, maintaining government protocols, which evidently rule out formal interviews with high government officials while drinking Sazeracs in music halls, I arrived at a nondescript, wood-paneled office in the DOT complex on Washington, D.C.'s New Jersey Avenue SE to see what was on her mind.

POLLY TROTTENBERG: In our world, transportation and highway-funding bills are the big things. When I worked for Moynihan, I worked on one of the big transportation reauthorization bills, which turned out to be TEA-21 [Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century], which is the one that came after ISTEA, which is sort of the mother of all of them.

JAMIE KITMAN: ISTEA?

PT: Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

We had the interstate highway bill [the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956], and we collected gas tax and spent it to complete the interstate, but as the years went by, there was an increasing desire to do more than just keep building highways. Eventually, there was a bit of gas-tax money to spend on mass transit, and ISTEA is the bill that gave states more flexibility about how to spend it.

But from ISTEA onward, we've been treading water in terms of federal transportation policy. We have not done much but keep on keeping on with the same old stuff. A lot of the transportation funds right now go out by formula.

The nice thing about formula funding is obvious when you're fighting for these funds in Congress. Everyone knows what they're getting, and you can sort of achieve a political solution. The problem with just giving everyone formula funds year after year is that it doesn't inspire the best investments. With the competitive-grant model, on the other hand, people have to apply and compete and they have to make a case.

We actually have two such programs now, including a big one you're hearing a lot about: high-speed rail-$8 billion from the stimulus funds [to build high-speed rail lines in nine major corridors] following a nationwide competition. We developed a list of criteria-applicants actually had to try and prove what could be done for safety, what could be done for economic competitiveness, what could be done for environmental sustainability, what could be done for livability. Instead of "here's your automatic slice of dough," tell us why your project would achieve these objectives, and show us that the benefits exceed the cost.

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