Polly Trottenberg: Road Warrior

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.


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.

JK: Not to sound cynical, but how far does $8 billion go, if the goal is to have a state-of-the-art high-speed train network like China is building?

PT: Look, $8 billion is a start. The interstate system took us decades to complete. We didn’t cough up all the dough on day one. If we appropriated $30 billion right now on high-speed rail, we wouldn’t be ready to spend it all.

JK: Where do gas taxes fit in?

PT: For years, the gas-tax money was flowing like wine. VMT [vehicle miles traveled] were going up every year. But now they’re declining, owing to the economy and the increased fuel efficiency of autos. So gas-tax revenues are going down. And we haven’t raised the gas tax since 1993 [when it went up to 18.4 cents a gallon;
see sidebar]. Imagine not having a pay raise since 1993.

In 2005, Congress passed the SAFETEA-LU bill [Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users-put forward by the Bush administration], with spending levels that exceeded what we were going to take in in gas-tax receipts. We had built up balances in the highway trust fund. So we basically burned through them. In the end, gas-tax receipts turned out to be even less robust than the original estimates.

So, right now, we have a structural imbalance of tens of millions of dollars between what the federal gas tax is expected to raise over the next six years and the $450 to $500 million that many transportation experts say we will need for maintenance, repairs, and new projects.

The gas tax is not sufficient at the moment to cover even what we’re doing, let alone what everyone wants to do, which is invest more in rail and mass transit and all kinds of things.

JK: How does the American situation compare with gas taxes internationally?

PT: In Europe, gas taxes are more like $3 or $4 a gallon. And they have a different model. Back in the Eisenhower interstate era, our political consensus was to put on a gas tax to pay to build the interstate-it was a user fee. If it weren’t for the tax, private industry would not have built our interstate system. In Europe, they have huge gas taxes, but they’re not user fees. They go into the general treasury, and [governments] use them for whatever they need them for-health care, defense, transportation.

To some degree, there’s this belief that people here are happier to pay a user fee, because they feel like they know what they pay for and know what they’re getting. But now the interstate is basically done. And few Americans know or fully appreciate what they are getting for their money.

JK: So, if the revenues aren’t already sufficient, how do you fund mass transit while also paying to repair and maintain our roads? Raise the gas taxes?

PT: While the economy is so bad and unemployment is so high, there’s not an appetite to raise the gas tax.

JK: How about gas-price floors, where you make sure gasoline doesn’t fall below a certain price, to encourage efficiency?

PT: I’m dubious. It’s a great intellectual exercise, but translating it into something that can be implemented is really, really hard to do.

We’re very sensitive to the outcomes we’re trying to achieve. Reduce carbon emissions. We are doing a CAFE rule-making change [to increase minimum fuel-economy standards]. And we’re trying to achieve something we call livability, which is basically enabling people to have more choices in how to get around. You know, they can use a car, but they don’t have to use a car. But it’s not our official policy to say things like, “We like electric cars.” We’re looking at outcomes and not trying to be too prescriptive about how to get there.

But you will always be balancing competing objectives that members of Congress from different parts of the country represent. The DOT doesn’t have the unilateral ability to do a lot of these things without Congress.

JK: Some have suggested that America has become too suburban. Is the suburb the enemy of efficient transport?

PT: I’m bored of talking about the suburbs, because they’re all incredibly different. In fact, the biggest investment and most exciting developments in rail in the D.C. area have happened in the suburbs.

The new paradigm we have-instead of the old city/suburb thing-is metropolitan areas that contain a multitude of different areas, different densities, different transportation needs. There is, however, this enormous demand for more investment in transit. All over the country, cities that tore out their streetcars back in the interstate era want to put them back now. I was just in Minneapolis, and they want to do a light-rail route where the streetcar used to connect downtown Minneapolis to the University of Minnesota and then connect to downtown Saint Paul and the big train depot there, which now sits empty.

It’s not like a big, heavy rail system. Streetcars are urban circulators that create commercial activity, getting people to the city center.

Previously, the way the DOT evaluated transit projects made it hard to get federal money to do those kinds of projects. Now we’ve changed that policy, and we’re encouraging places to explore them.

When we were young, something like 60 percent of kids walked or rode their bikes to school. Now it’s at 14 percent or so. We made these big regional schools, and we moved them out far away. Childhood obesity wasn’t a concern. But as a result, our streets are mostly automobile focused. Our roadways accommodate cars, and that’s fine, but one idea is to have them accommodate everybody, not only cars but also bikes and pedestrians and people in wheelchairs and old people, so that when they try to cross the street they don’t get flattened.

There was a belief in the real heyday of the interstate era, the ’50s and the ’60s, that the cities were dying, people were moving to the suburbs, and unless you connected them with these highways, they were going to die. And in the process, we lost a lot of our neighborhoods.

Recently, there’s been a bit of a breakthrough on the understanding that it’s good to invest in transportation that creates local economic development activity, like a streetcar. There’s a real difference between streetcars and buses, because streetcar stations, however modest they may be, have enough permanence to them that they generate economic activity around them. Buses don’t really do that.

At one time, if you were proposing a rail project, you would have to compare it to a mythological lower-cost bus alternative. The DOT has just changed the policy on that, and people are excited.

JK: It sounds like a lot of maintenance on our roadways is getting deferred. Surely that’s not cost-efficient in the long run?

PT: We’ve built an incredibly massive system, and maintaining what we’ve got is quite costly. One of our goals in the latest version of the grand strategic plan that we put out every five years is a state of good repair, to make sure we’re doing wise life-cycle investing and maintaining what we already have. There’s always a political tension between maintaining what you have versus getting people excited about the new, fun stuff they’re going to get. So it’s not like, “I bought a fancy new house, but I never did a thing about the roof, and eventually the rain came in and wrecked the whole house. Whereas if I spent the 10,000 bucks to fix the roof . . . ” Fixing the roof is not that sexy, but you’ve got to do it.

Pain at the Pump
Don’t like the price of gas? Don’t blame the federal gas tax.

The U.S. federal gasoline tax of $0.01 per gallon was first instituted as part of the Revenue Act of 1932. In the 1930s and ’40s, the tax came under fire repeatedly from auto, oil, and travel interests, and there were numerous efforts to repeal it. In the mid-1950s, the gas tax helped fund the new interstate highway system, and it became clear that it was here to stay. Since 1993, the federal gas tax has been pegged at $0.184 per gallon.

1932: $0.01
1933: $0.015
1934: $0.01
1941: $0.015
1951: $0.02
1956: $0.03
1959: $0.04
1983: $0.09
1986: $0.091
1990: $0.141
1993: $0.184