On Wednesday the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson. Unfortunately, the bulk of what I witnessed was slobbering praise for LaHood (a former Congressmen) from his erstwhile colleagues, and petty whining about parochial concerns. (One Republican Congressman complained that his staffs calls to the EPA were not returned, and D.C.‘s non-voting representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, chimed in that she was appalled to hear such a horror story.)
But a few questions did touch on a topic of real importance for cities: how states will spend the stimulus infrastructure money. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), inquired about using Community Development Block Grants to dispense the money. As Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) noted, that’s an “intriguing,” idea. But, alas, as LaHood explained it would be illegal under the rules Congress made in the law. (Much of the hearing seemed to consist of LaHood educating members of Congress on the provisions of the bill they had themselves voted for.)
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), asked if the Department of Transportation would make any effort to assess whether state governments were spending the money in an equitable manner. Many cities have feared that the statehouses, which are often biased against them, will not use the stimulus funds fairly. They lobbied to have money dispersed directly to local governments, but to no avail. “Some cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles could do it,” said LaHood, “but many smaller cities do not have the staff and expertise to administer the projects.” LaHood’s suggested solution? That cities should lobby their statehouses. That’s cold comfort to, say, a New Yorker who has recently watched her state government veto congestion pricing and fail to bail out the ailing Metropolitan Transit Authority. Hopefully the upcoming Surface Transit Re-authorization will make money available directly to cities.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.