Wednesday, December 28, 2016

From the Archives: Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation James Burnley sees U.S. at 'crisis point for infrastructure'

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on June 25, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation James Burnley sees U.S. at 'crisis point for infrastructure'

Currently a partner at the law firm Venable LLP, James H. Burnley IV was not yet 40 years old when he became President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation in 1987, having previously served as deputy secretary in that department as well as in the U.S. Department of Justice as an associate deputy attorney general.

In an interview with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on June 25, Burnley did not mince words in his assessment of the current state of transportation in the United States.

Time to Rethink Roles

"We’re at a crisis point on infrastructure for transportation in this country and we need to start over, rethinking the roles” of the state, federal, and local governments in devising and implementing transportation policy, he said.

Noting that the economic situation today is quite different than it was in the late 1980s, Burnley pointed out that “we had deficits” under President Reagan “but nothing on the scale we have today.”

One matter that is significantly different, he said, is that “the highway user fee trust fund idea has broken down completely. In the last few years $34.5 billion have been transferred from general revenues because we can’t pay for the existing highway programs and the transit programs that are funded, in part, from the highway trust fund.”

That’s why, he said, we have to “go back to a clean sheet of paper and rethink the federal role vis-à-vis the states and cities on transportation.”

Critical of Obama
Burnley was also critical of the Obama administration’s approach to these issues.

“I don’t think that the policies that the Obama administration seems to be intent on implementing are taking us in that direction – unfortunately,” he said. “Rather, their policies, under the so-called ‘livability doctrine’ seem to be designed to have the federal government play a much more intrusive, heavy-handed role in state and local transportation decisions. I’m sorry to see that happening.”

One proposal, pushed heavily by the Obama administration, is to build and expand high-speed rail across the United States. Burnley is skeptical.

This is, he said, “an issue that ultimately will be determined by how much we as a country are willing to spend because it will never pay for itself and it requires enormous capital investments by someone.”

There are questions that have to be asked in the debate over high-speed rail, Burnley said. “Is that money available from any source, and, if so, where does it come from? The federal government? State government? Private capital, which I think is not very likely?”

Funding, he said, is “the ultimate determinative factor, which is where is the money going to come from, and is it an investment as a country that we want to make?”

High-Speed or Low-Speed?
One issue that is emerging is that federal stimulus funds claimed to be for high-speed rail are going to projects far removed from that concept.

“Part of the $8 billion in stimulus money that was set aside last year for high speed rail that’s not going to the two greenfield projects in California and in Florida has been spread out by the federal [Department of Transportation] among the states to be spent on existing railroad lines,” Burnley explained, which, outside of the Northeast Corridor – where the lines are owned by Amtrak – are owned by freight railroads.

“What we think about as the high-speed rail program” besides those greenfield projects and Acela -- “we’re talking about increasing speeds by 2, 3, 4 miles an hour, very modest increases.”

As a result, that stimulus “money is, in fact, going as direct subsidies to the freight railroads because those are the lines upon which the passenger trains run outside the Northeast Corridor,” said Burnley. “You can argue the merits of that but, factually, I think, it’s important to note that that’s what’s happened. That’s where those billions of dollars are going.”

In other words, federal money designated for “high-speed rail” is subsiding “slow rail” instead.

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