Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) has never been a shrinking violet. In 16 years as first the ranking member and then the chairman of the Resources Committee, the irascible former riverboat captain battled environmentalists and fought for the economic interests of his home state.
Now, in his new perch as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Young is overseeing the reauthorization of the massive Transportation Equity Act. The measure has already put him at odds with the White House and his party’s leadership. In an interview with Roll Call Executive Editor Morton Kondracke he calls the transportation budget figure submitted by the administration “laughable” and pledges to continue fighting for a hike in the gas “user fee,” insisting such an increase will improve the nation’s transport infrastructure to ensure that “you’re not wasting time, you’re home to see your kids play basketball and your wife is not mad at you.”
Roll Call Executive Editor Morton Kondracke: Tell me what the schedule is for TEA-21 reauthorization.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young: We are aiming at a July date. It could slip because of what goes on in the floor.
Roll Call: And the markup?
Young: June, middle of June. I’ve been in this business long enough not to predict anything because you don’t know what’s going to happen with acts on the floor … some of them could occur. Case in point, 9/11 happened and instead of working on highway legislation like we should have been, we were charged with the task of the airline stabilization act, the security act, port security — all the things that were not there in the previous year.
Roll Call: And the president’s plan, when is it coming?
Young: It’s supposed to be here very soon. I will probably introduce the president’s plan by request — it’s not going to be a bill we will mark up — and will go forth as we think we ought to do.
Roll Call: How much is going to be in his bill?
Young: I have no idea. They came down in the budget with $29.8 billion which is a laughable figure. The justification in their own numbers will show that we need $50 billion in ’04 and up to $60 billion by ’09 just to maintain, really, not to do much improvement. So when they came down to $29.8 … their own figures from the Department of Transportation are quite higher, I don’t know what they are attempting to do.
Roll Call: And the budget resolution calls for $273 billion over six years, is it?
Young: It is, we want $375 billion. We are about $100 billion short. They did give me a license to look for money, as you know that’s part of the agreement. And we are going to go through that process and you know as time goes and people become more aware of what we’re trying to do, we have a much better chance of passage of a solution.
Roll Call: The solution you were discussing to the financial problem was an inflation-adjustment-indexing of the gas tax. Where does that stand?
Young: We are now working with the Ways and Means Committee. We’re going to write our bill with $375 billion. The Ways and Means Committee will have part of our bill and that’s where we have to work with [Ways and Means Chairman] Bill Thomas [R-Calif.] on how we’re going to try to raise the money. We have found better acceptance on the indexing concept rather than the users’ fee, which I can’t understand. … We’ve talked to the Senate side and they are interested in it, and we believe that it should have been done and it’s an incorrect thing for us not to do it — because now the 18.2 cents per gallon is really about 12 cents worth of purchasing dollars.
Roll Call: Will you be able to build a catch-up into that?
Young: That’s what I want to do. I want to go back to ’93. That may be an impossibility because it is a pretty good increase, about 5 cents of additional cost per gallon of gasoline. Now, if I could have put it in prior to today, there would be no problem because gas has really dropped down to about $1.40, we’re just about guaranteed that, and nobody would have known the difference. … Polls we’ve taken, the Zogby poll and the international poll, I forget which one it was … they both actually show that 67 percent of the public would support a user’s fee as long as it’s dictated to infrastructure problems. …
We lose $67 billion a year not moving. We have 3.6 billion lost days in traffic, 55.7 billion gallons of fuel wasted not moving. It costs the average peak road user about $1,160 a year in lost revenue, not including lost time. An average worker who drives back and forth loses about a week and a half. Loses — you never get that back. It is a crucial, crucial economic problem we are faced with here. If we don’t improve this transportation system across this country, our highways, our railroads … then the economic well-being of this nation cannot continue. We will strangle upon ourselves and we can’t be competitive worldwide because we’re not putting our transportation system as we should. There are reasons for this. Up until the Johnson years, there was a trust fund and then they used the fund to pay for the Vietnam War and that didn’t go back off budget until ’98.
And so, we got behind and there was no continuity in the transportation system. … If you were on the Appropriations Committee, you got a road widened, but if you happened to be down the road in another Congressional district that wasn’t Appropriations Committee, it went back to a two lane. So it was just a hodgepodge of a system. The intent under [former Transportation and Infrastructure] Chairman [Bud] Shuster [R-Pa.] and the committee was to make sure there was a continuity and a factor that the states knew where they were going to be together. Consequently by the way, we passed the North American Free Trade Agreement and not thinking of the transportation needs. And then Eisenhower used this as a stimulus package for east and west routes — said it was under security— but we didn’t have anything for the north-south runs. Our trucks now are jammed up. That makes them very noncompetitive. We have to do this. I mean, I can’t do it in six years, but if I can write a good bill here that at least keeps us level and gets the people more ginned up about the importance of the legacy left behind for the future generations’ economical well-being, then we are in good shape.
Roll Call: How much do you get if you can get indexing of the gasoline tax? How close to the $375 billion do you get?
Young: When this whole controversy came up, I gave them six ways to do it. One was a user fee, an increase of 2 cents in user fee. Two cents makes sense … . The other factor is that we want to draw down on the fund. There’s about $18 billion in the fund now that’s been used by the general treasury in reality to balance the books. … Restore the interest in the Highway Trust Fund that was taken and put into the general fund. This is a small thing — we have about $3 billion in lost revenues by people avoiding the tax. Fuel is trucked in. Truck stops are not collecting it. The Treasury Department has not really enforced this. We think it’s terribly unfair for those who are paying it, so we are going to mandate that they enforce it so we do collect from those who are not paying. That’s about $3 to $4 billion.
The big catching point is to direct all revenues from existing gas and all user fees to the highway trust fund. That’s about 2.5 cents per gallon and that would probably raise us about $3 or $4 billion, reimburse the highway trust fund for lost revenue of 5.2 percent gallon gas-haul user-fee subsidy or eliminate the subsidy totally. That’s about $7 billion or $8 billion. The indexing would give us $75 billion. If you use all those figures together, you arrive at the numbers we think that can maintain and improve $375 billion over six years.
Roll Call: Has Majority Leader Tom
DeLay [Texas] now acceded to the idea of a gasoline tax indexing, because he was opposed to it at one point.
Young: He never was totally opposed to the indexing. He was totally opposed to the user fee. … Indexing is based upon the price index of the cost of living. That means as inflation goes up, the tax goes up too, to keep the fund solid. The user fee would be a new tax, an add-on tax, I’m still going to try to sell it, and I’ve told him that. I’m not going to be precluded from doing it. … It’s an additional 2 cents. …
Why should we pay the Saudis at $2 a gallon and not say a word about it? When at least if we had 2 cents that you knew would go directly to making sure you’re not stuck in traffic, you’re not wasting your time, you’re home to see your kids play basketball and your wife is not mad at you. That is very important.
We need mass transit. Unfortunately the users of the roads are paying for mass transit. But, I don’t think we can build enough roads without having a transit system in place. I just don’t think we can do it. Some people object to that. If you want to eliminate the problem of congestion, you have to move people by other means. You just can’t put that many cars on the road.
Roll Call: Out of the $375 billion, how much would be for mass transit?
Young: Seventy-five billion of the $375 billion. People look at me because I am a big truck supporter, I’ve got my commercial driver’s license, I do all these sorts of things, they’re paying for the majority of the fuel, but we also have to address that issue with trucks. These roads were never built to move the freight they are moving now by trucks. I’m going to try and have two pilot projects. I’ve released one pilot project where we have exclusive right-of-ways for trucks but it has to be a toll road to help pay for it, and they don’t like that. I’m trying to work out a system where the toll will be a computer card and that section of the road, they stop paying fuel tax when they go on that section of the road, they pay the toll. When they get off the road, they go back to paying the fuel tax.
Roll Call: Where do you envision this pilot to be?
Young: The first one I want to do in Virginia. It’s close enough to where the rest of my Congressional friends can see it. And once they see it then they will be mandated across this country. That makes us able to move products.
Roll Call: Is it a safety issue?
Young: More than that. When we became a trading nation, which is relatively new, being a big trading nation, if you can’t take the product from origin to destination in a rapid period of time, you’re losing the ability to be competitive. And that truck has to be not stopped. … That’s what tears the roads up, because the kinetic force is not going down, it’s not the weight factor, it’s the weight plus the stopping this way, is working against the structure of the road. When you start and go, you just tear the daylights out of the roads and bridges.
ROLL CALL: Should we switch off to TEA-21 or is there something else you want to say about that?
YOUNG: It’s “Tea-Lu.” I’m serious about that. Transportation Equity Act, logistics unlimited or lanes unlimited or something like that, but it’s going to be “Lu.” And I don’t care whether they want to make fun of that, I’m the chairman, that’s what’s going to happen.
ROLL CALL: And the “Lu” is what again?
YOUNG: That’s my wife’s name. [laughs]
Roll Call: Other priorities for the year?
Young: The first bill we will be doing is AIR-21. Unfortunately because of 9/11, most of the money that’s in that fund has been used for nonairport improvement. It’s been used for willy-nilly security, so we have to get back to what the problem was and think about the problem prior to 9/11 — delays, treatment of the passengers, etc. We had to take and expand the airports and we had a good program and we had done a lot of that, but that has to be continued. We have to address utilizing more technology. Now, we’re actually putting one in Anchorage and Denver, I think it is, where we can move more airplanes on the same runway. The Federal Aviation Administration mandatorily has come up with a five-minute wait before a plane can take off behind another airplane automatically, but we have now the technology and ability to detect the turbulence of if it’s there or if it’s not there.
If it’s not there, the plane can take off a minute-and-a-half afterwards. We get more planes on the runway when we don’t have the delays. We’re working on the technology part of that one. That will be our first bill.
The second bill will be this bill, the AIR-21 bill. Because the short lines need more improvement, this is gonna be a great asset to the rail industry to move weighted product, not necessarily passengers.
Roll Call: As to the AIR-21 bill, is there a need for major upgrades in air traffic control?
Young: That is through the FAA and we do have jurisdiction over the FAA, but a lot of the upgrades were frankly bad management through the FAA and that’s been documented and we are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Actually, the control end of it has been much better than people expected. We have upgraded to some extent and we can continue to do that. But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is what I call fixed regulations that doesn’t allow the complete use of the money. We have all these different methods that we can actually move more airplanes on existing runways. Then we also have to add more runways. Now as bad as the airline industry is right now, and I think you’re going to see a continued shakeout, but as bad as that is you’re going to see a continued growth in population and demand for more air travel. So we have to come to grips with that and not be caught again behind the eight-ball as we were with the highway system.
Roll Call: Speaking of the airline condition, what is going to happen to the airlines and do they deserve a bailout?
Young: If I knew the answer to that I’ll be a millionaire now instead of a Congressman. I think you’re going to see a shakeout. A lot of this is brought upon themselves by, very frankly, bad management practices — they recognize that now, some of them do — and bad labor agreements because everyone was trying to outdo one another. Of course the spiking and decline of fuel costs is unpredictable. And then, of course, the uncertainty — everybody in business today isn’t flying much and that’s where the money was. Now the planes are chock full. I’ve been on the road for the last two weeks and every plane I got in was full right to the brim. There [are] fewer of them. They are flying too cheap, if you want to know the truth.
They are trying to outdo the other person. Consequently, you have United, with the bankruptcy, American avoided bankruptcy temporarily, US Airways came out of bankruptcy. You have JetBlue saying how good they are, like Southwest is good. There are reasons for that. If you look at the reasons they are able to make a profit, one is because they are flying planes that are not as old as some of the other airplanes. The maintenance is much, much lower. That’ll change in time. They don’t have a union contract, they fly for about $80,000 a year versus $250,000 a year. An upstart sometimes can do those things and they are actually creaming the best routes. The problem I see — and I’ve warned the airlines as this — if they don’t continue essential air service to many of the Members’ districts they are going to talk about re-regulation. Then it becomes a utility run by the federal government, which doesn’t really work well across the country. It doesn’t work well. Every other country is selling their airlines nationally owned to private investors. So anyway, if I knew exactly what was going to happen … Now, bailout I supported, it was my bill, the Airline Security Act, stabilization act, I did it for a purpose, because it was the first time the government ever shut down the utility that was privately held without reimbursement. They have only used about $7 billion of the so-called $10 billion, so it wasn’t really a great big bailout. This recent $2.7 billion [included in the emergency supplemental] was really, really primarily because of unfunded mandates made by the Congress.
Roll Call: But the airlines are coming back for more?
Young: You can’t blame them, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I can’t see the interest for that.
Roll Call: Where are we on aviation security now? Has what’s needed to be done been done, or is there merit, for example, in the idea of equipping airlines with anti-missile technologies?
Young: This is the catch and catch-can, this is the thing that bothers us the most. We have had briefings on it — the airlines are susceptible to it, there’s no doubt about it. But technology is there, I would say very highly percentage-wise to avoid action by a terrorist occurring. … It is very expensive. Now, if we require that, again, does that airline have to pay for that or do we pay for it? There’s a Catch-22. If I was the president of the airline and could set up a system to say we can’t be shut down I might think about it just for advertising purposes. The airlines naturally are objecting to it right now because this is a huge expense to them. If we make it mandatory for them to use it, who has to pay for it? I happen to personally think that we also have a responsibility to ourselves to pay for that security which we receive. I’m not going to make a decision one way or another, I think the airlines themselves will eventually see the wisdom in doing it.
Roll Call: Are there any other major steps that need to be taken?
Young: We’ve sent a lot of money and we don’t know what the end result is. I still think we ought to be looking at better ways to attract passengers without the hassle of going through security. My chief of staff has been in the military 28 years. He’s got top-secret clearance, flew with the president and he went on the last trip with me and they picked him out every time. No rhyme or reason … what is the reason? No one will tell you what the reason is. I’m arguing that if you’re willing to go through a background check and you are willing to so-called give up your privacy, then you are a frequent flyer, then I think ought to be able to get through that line very rapidly. Such as a hand print and eye check, or whatever there is. All the technology is there. When you get stuck in those long lines, pretty soon you don’t want to fly, you stay home and use e-mail. I think we ought to review where we’re going and are we are safer with the actions we’re taking now and if it’s deterred the flyer. Has the businessmen said, “Oh, I want to drive around or use a conference call.” If we don’t do that, we’re not really doing the job security-wise and we’re not really doing the job that’s right for a private held company. This would be an oversight matter. Homeland Security and our committee will do this. We will go back into this whole thing about how the money is being spent and are we are getting better service.
My biggest problem is it’s hard for me to say because that was our bill — and I can remember the big [brouhaha] because the Senate passed that stupid bill they passed in about in two days — and then I was accused on the steps of the Capitol of delaying it cause I wouldn’t do it, and we reviewed every nation that had a security issue. We’d thought we wrote a good bill, but also we thought logic would apply. Unfortunately, it does not apply. If you go to Alaska down to Dutch Harbor, they were putting the same security methods out there as you have in Chicago. Now, where are you going to go in Dutch Harbor with a plane to do what? By the time you get to Anchorage, you’re out of fuel. … This is a very dumb method which they are using. All across the country we created a very large agency that all of a sudden had this appetite like a dinosaur.
Roll Call: What’s going to happen to Amtrak?
Young: I am not a big supporter of Amtrak basically because it’s a political form of transportation and not a real economic method of moving people. It’s because we’re mixing passenger rail with freight. And you cannot go 150 mph on a freight rail because of your tonnage factor and the working of the track. … You get 15 more mph out of the Acela for all that money we spent — that is ridiculous.
Amtrak President David Gunn is a good manager, I’ll give him credit. He has done better than anybody else, but it’s a losing proposition to begin with. I’ve tried to suggest to Amtrak people and to the Congress, “Let’s not be locked into Amtrak. Let’s be locked into passenger rail.” Let’s build a system to move people from the urban to urban areas in a rapid way, as they do in France, Germany, England, all over Europe.
This would be a separate rail bed. I personally like the concept of Maglev. You have to have exclusive right of ways. In France and Germany, they went out and condemned the property. That would be very difficult to do in the U.S. because the quarters just don’t add up. Maglev is better because you can build a lot of it right in the middle of a highway corridor and it’s elevated. Or you can build it on a guy’s farm and he can still farm under the track. You don’t take as much land. You can pay a rental fee instead of condemning it. That would be my preference.
Roll Call: How much would that cost?
Young: Very expensive. I couldn’t give you those figures. But, if we don’t do that, we just keep pouring $1.6 billion in the hole a year for Amtrak and that’s not going to work. To me, that’s silly. Amtrak was created by the Congress with the help of the railroads to get rid of everything that wasn’t paying for itself. It will never make money. Even if we put in a Maglev. We’ll be able to go from Union Station to New York faster than you can fly an airplane. By the time you go to the airport and go through security and wait in line, I’ll be in New York in an hour and 28 minutes if you got the right system because you are doing at 242 mph. To me, that is the future for moving people in congested areas — eastern and western corridor. Cross country? I’m not sure that’s viable, I’m not sure that’s necessary. As long as you’ve got airplanes, I’m not sure you want to run a train that isn’t moving anybody and now they’re getting into the freight business, which they were never supposed to do to begin with. How did this happen? Most were politicians that wanted Amtrak to come to their station in their town, which may haul two people a day at a huge taxpayers’ cost. It’s the most subsidized system in the world. I’m for moving people, but let’s not be locked into this old-fashioned system that has not and will not ever be able to work because you are competing with the freight train at the same time.
Roll Call: Do you see a need to upgrade railroad security?
Young: If the Transportation Security Administration is an example, forget it. … Hopefully when we have this review with homeland security under Rep. Chris Cox [R-Calif.] we’ll be able to review some of these things. You can never be fail-safe. A dedicated terrorist can use any mode of transportation if he’s dedicated to cause disruption. A person who is dedicated is going to be very difficult. The railroad is much farther ahead than any other form of transportation. They know most of the time what’s on and where it’s going and who has consigned it on that train, and they know every time where that train is. They have a huge computerized system now. They know where the train is. They know if it slowed down. They know if it’s been hijacked. They know all of this much better than the airline industry. But, to write another bill for rail security, for what purpose, when the rail’s own interest is to make sure things are safe. They have changed the pattern, which is crucially important. There is no longer a train loaded with ammonia going through a town every exact time. They may run in the morning. They don’t know. The terrorist does not know. You cannot be totally faithful in any shape or form.
Roll Call: What about port security?
Young: We passed a port bill last year I think is adequate. Right now, we are working with our greatest importers — China. … We have people on the ground and have the Chinese government making sure the containers are from the person who said they shipped it and to the receiver and they know the contents. We do have a lot of silly things go on. We had empty trucks or containers that they check for explosives when they’re empty. And this is under, frankly, TSA. If they want to check it, check them at the point of origin, not once it gets into the harbor. …
Roll Call: The original figure said only 3 percent of all containers was being checked?
Young: I don’t know where they got that number. Again, you can’t make a ship totally safe.
Roll Call: What is the real percentage?
Young: I have no idea.
Roll Call: Is it still low?
Young: It’s probably low. We are trying to get those that ship to us the cooperation and the equipment that can take and review the container prior to its arrival in our ports. You can’t make it secure in the port. The port security bill that the Senate had — they were going to have requirements for all longshoremen, for instance, that if you had a felony charge for assault, you couldn’t get a job. Well, guess what? Most longshoremen, somewhere along the line, probably got a felony assault charge. That has nothing to do with security. Security is what’s in the container. If I have my way, we will have the ability that the container will be catalogued what it contains, it will be electronically sealed in a computer. If this is disturbed, we pull that container right off the ship or off the line because we know one of two things: Someone has put something in it that was not there originally or someone has stolen from it. We pull that container. We think that’s the best way to make it safe. The shipping companies are working on it. …
What do we do if it’s not a big company? I would like to say — and I know people think I am wrong — if you are not with a pact, you don’t come to our ports, you are not allowed. Al Qaeda supposedly has 13 ships, we’re not sure. Any one of those ships that isn’t cleared can’t come to our port. That stops that nonsense real quick.
As far as I know, England, Denmark and China are all with us on this, they agree.
Roll Call: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Young: The issue of transportation is very dear to my heart. If we don’t improve upon our systems, we cannot be competitive. I’ve gotta get more people thinking that way. It’s the number one issue in my mind in this nation today socially. Imagine: You’re locked in traffic, you get to work 10 minutes late, your boss gets mad at you, it takes you an hour and a half to cool off, you’re not productive, you finally go to lunch and your stomach is still upset and by 3 o’clock you are thinking about the drive home.
ROLL CALL: What do you say to the people who tell you that the more highways you build, the more sprawl you get?
Young: Who are these people and what do they expect to do? The only way you solve this problem is that you don’t have any more children or any more immigrants. If it weren’t for the huge immigration in this country … we wouldn’t have a country. So whenever I see a guy come who wants to be an American, the first thing he wants is a job. What’s the second thing he wants? A car. He gets the job and he’s going to get the car. It’s not only he needs it. He’s doing something. He’s been driving a damn burro all his life and all of the sudden he gets a car. I’ve been trying to tell people this.
What are you going to do about this? Stack people on top of one another?