On a road to nowhere

Block News Alliance

If there is one thing that unites Americans, besides a reluctance to hunt with Dick Cheney, it’s frustration over the nation’s worsening traffic congestion.

Everywhere you go, people want to know how long it took you to get there.

That is followed by the inevitable sigh, a commiserating nod of the head and, “That’s bad, but that’s nothing compared with what I went through. Let me tell you. …”

A peek into President Bush’s proposed budget will not reassure you that the situation will improve. He wants to cut spending by the Department of Transportation.

The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, but outmoded highways and bridges are not slated for dramatic repairs or rebuilding. Mass transit simply is not on the White House radar screen.

The budget for Amtrak whacks $394 million out of rail spending and would wipe out a loan program aimed at fixing deteriorating rails.

Yes, yes, powerful legislators always manage to pork up the budget with their own “earmarks” and highway projects, such as the infamous $450 million “bridges to nowhere” for which Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, lobbied ferociously. (After the uproar, Congress decided the state still gets the money, but now with the option on how to spend it.)

But there is no overall plan to overhaul the nation’s transportation system for the future, as other nations are doing. As previous administrations did, the Bush administration often kills or promotes projects willy-nilly, based more on political favors than on whether the project makes sense.

Some economists already predict that without a major investment in transportation and infrastructure needs, the nation’s economic growth will be stifled.

Some big truckers are all but screaming for an increase in the gasoline tax in an effort to improve pockmarked highways. Even from such an unlikely source, that plea falls on deaf ears.

We’re going to reach the point where we will have to take express toll roads to get anywhere, and they will cost so much that only the rich will be able to afford them.

Many transportation experts are begging for a plan that connects various modes of transportation into a network that is a seamless web of mass transit and highways and rail and waterways that would actually reduce the nation’s “addiction to oil.” But at the White House, there seems to be no interest.

Ditto for improving energy efficiency. Adjusting for inflation, the proposed budget not only doesn’t increase spending and research in that field, but cuts it by at least $130 million.

The president has proposed to spend an additional $7 million to find a better battery for the hybrid car. But environmental groups point out that even this is basically trading one form of fuel for another _ the battery still has to be plugged in at night and the electric power plant has to be powered. And it won’t reduce congestion. (Do you get an image of a Rube Goldberg network of crisscrossing highways clogged with strange-looking battery-powered cars slowly churning up and down?)

You would think that with all this nation’s wasteful plastic packaging derived from oil (just opening a plastic-wrapped item can be another source of knuckle-whitening frustration) the White House would campaign to reduce it. But, no, the president looks us squarely in the eye and says nothing about plastic. He does say, solemnly: “Hydrogen.”

Somehow, as with ethanol, we’re supposed to believe that hydrogen will save us. But not by 2025, when he promises we can be well on our way to ending our addiction to oil.

A new study of the Washington area concluded that congestion is so bad around the nation’s capital that drivers on mile-a-minute highways are lucky to make five miles an hour.

The transportation-planning director for the area warned that traffic has outpaced transportation capacity and that quick fixes of five years ago are badly inadequate.

Officials at the Transportation Department, the agency getting shafted in the president’s proposed $2.77 trillion budget, say that complaints of congestion even in non-major-metropolitan areas are rising alarmingly. Lost productivity is becoming a serious concern. Frazzled nerves are taking their toll on health-care costs.

But the president doesn’t see it. Everywhere he goes, police clear the roads for his motorcade. He never stops at a red light. No 5-mile-an-hour road trips for him.

Memo to anybody interested in running for president in 2008: Drive yourself around for a few months, feel our pain and then come up with a transportation plan to get this country back on track, headed in the right direction and home in time for dinner.

(Ann McFeatters is Washington bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)