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Bold moves for transportation?

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 9:16 p.m.

Ronald Utt recently retired as a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke to the Trib about some of the nation's key transportation issues as U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, ascends to the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Q: What are the largest challenges facing Rep. Shuster as he heads transportation?

A: You have a federal transportation program that is largely stuck in the past, the allocations and spending choices are largely political and very little of this has any relevance to the actual transportation needs of the people who move around.

Bill Shuster is (walking into this) at a time when there is very little agreement on anything. The existing transportation law that we live under expired probably 2½ years ago and nobody has been able to agree on a new one, so what they do is simply keep extending the old one.

Q: How does that kind of climate impact initiatives such as high-speed rail?

A: The Obama national high-speed-rail program is about as dead as a program could be. The only real high-speed-rail program is the California one (but) the problem is that California has no money to do it so it keeps flopping along with essentially no progress. If you were to ask me to bet on this, I would say it will never be built.

Q: Do you think it's about time to write the obituary for high-speed rail in America?

A: There's no question about that. You know, Obama doesn't even talk about it anymore because he would be reminding everybody of a signature policy initiative that nobody supported, and that's one of many.

Q: So that leaves rail in the hands of Amtrak. What do you see for its future?

A: I think Amtrak will continue to be what is, which is more or less precisely what it was in the early 1970s. It serves a tiny fraction of the traveling public, less than one-half of 1 percent. It's not particularly well run, it's not particularly convenient and on average most trains are half-full. The problem is not that there aren't enough seats to accommodate people; there are not enough people to accommodate the seats. But this thing will continue to go along because there are lots of people who are obsessed with trains. They think they are neat. It tends to be a bipartisan affliction.

Q: Is that sort of stasis indicative of the transportation program as a whole?

A: The program has been largely untouched for several decades. It's a top-down program where the federal bureaucracy tells the states what they must do. You must fund this, you must build that. And the more musts they have, the less money is actually going to transportation needs as determined by the people who are actually on the ground trying to make the system work.

Q: So it's fair to say Rep. Shuster has his work cut out for him?

A: He certainly does. This is not a pleasant time to be head of that particular committee. There are real challenges there. At the same time, he has tremendous opportunities to make bold moves and reform things for the future. The choice is his. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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