Partisan sparring & soundbites as USDOT releases 3Rs report
By Peter Samuel
Democrat transport policy, you could say, is the same old thing: "tax it, regulate it, earmark it, grandstand it, or indebt it." That would be in line with the old line Democrat pol and house chair of transportation James Oberstar's characterization today of Administration policy as "toll it, privatize it, lease it, sell it, or congestion price it." (press release 2008-07-29)
Oberstar was responding to the administration's unveiling of its "Refocus, Reform, Renew - A New Transportation Approach In America" theme at the website http://www.fightgridlocknow.gov website. So presumably the Dems slogan will be "Deform, Defocus, Denude - A New Old Transportation Approach For America" at the website http://www.congestthebumsoutoftheirSUVs.net
Such are the rancorous soundbites in the relentless campaigning under way in the hot Washington DC summer of a presidential election year.
You'd never guess from any of the demagoguery out of Oberstar's office that it has been prominent Democrat leaders like Mayor Richard Daly of Chicago, Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Gov Jon Corzine of New Jersey who have been the leading champions of tolling and privatization - well ahead of Mary Peters and the Bush administration.
Or that the fight against those free enterprise policies in Texas has been led by Republicans championing the property rights of the individual against grandiose TxDOT planners.
Or that LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa - as Democrat as they come - is pushing toll lanes and congestion pricing in the nation's second metro area.
Or that just across the Potomac River, within sight of the Capitol Building, Virginia's Democrat governor Timothy Kane is pushing on with investor built toll lanes on I-395/I-95 from the Pentagon halfway to Richmond and on the Capital Beltway Springfield to Tysons, and is seeking investors and tolls to fund and manage all the major mobility projects around the Hampton Roads/Norfolk area - Virginia's second metro area after northern Virginia.
Oberstar the Obtuse knows none of this, apparently. Or if he does, he isn't going to let such inconvenient facts get in the way of his braindead campaign against change.
Refreshing by contrast is the candor of Secretary Peters: "Without a doubt, our federal approach to transportation is broken. And no amount of tweaking, adjusting or adding new layers on top will make things better. It is time for a new, a different and a better approach."
The specifics fall short of fulfilling that grand promise, but nevertheless are movement in the direction of reform:
- renewed focus on improving the interstate system
- addressing urban congestion (a metropolitan innovation fund)
- giving states more flexibility in spending with eight federal programs in place of the present lobby-built jalopy of 102 programs
- a new science-based approach to safety
- acceleration of the federal review process which presently takes an average of 13 years to get projects approved, designed and built
Central to reform Peters said was alternative funding sources to the wobbly gasoline tax. She characterized the present American reliance on fuel tax funding as "an antiquated mechanism" as demonstrated by the last several months results. A temporary drop in driving illogically reduces the funds for longterm transport improvements.
Peters said more direct pricing options like tolling are needed. States, she said, must be allowed to take advantage of what she said was "over $400 billion available worldwide for infrastructure investments from the private sector."
In a speech today in Atlanta the secretary said: "We also begin the long overdue process of weaning ourselves from the gas tax. It is time for our transportation policies to stop contradicting our national objective to reduce fossil-based fuel consumption...
"Every year, Americans routinely reject new taxes and new debt for transportation projects. It is not that they don't want better commutes. They just have no confidence in the government's ability to deliver better results. They know the current approach is failing badly."
Private sector role
A separate USDOT paper titled "Innovation wave: an update on the burgeoning private sector role in US highway and transit infrastructure" outlines the potential for private investment replacing the dwindling fuel tax funding. Independent of the federal government 25 states now have legislation to allow them to harness private capital through toll concessions or public private partnerships (PPPs). This, the paper says .is a recognition that reliance on taxes is a formula for underfunding and failure.
"We spend record amounts on highways and transit, yet congestion and system unreliability continue to increase," the executive summary states.
"Scarce transportation resources are increasingly misallocated for political or special purpose spending."
The paper reiterates the perversity involved in relying on fuel taxes for funding while at the same time promoting reduced use of those fuels: "We rely on fuel taxes to fund transportation despite national, bipartisan efforts to promote energy independence, improved fuel economy, reduced emissions and alternative fuel development."
PPPs are being utilized, the paper says, "because:
• PPPs respond to congestion and system unreliability by providing high-quality, well managed projects and better performance;
• PPPs address the demand for transportation investment by providing access to a vast amount of private capital available for investment in transportation;
• PPPs reduce the wasteful effects of political and special purpose spending by incorporating financial accountability for investment decisions into the transportation funding process;
• PPPs help align the Nation's transportation funding policy with critical energy and environmental policies by substituting private capital for fuel tax revenue; and
• PPPs can significantly accelerate project delivery by providing upfront private capital for a project's full cost."
While there are risks in PPPs, the paper says "there is no evidence that PPPs are inherently more risky than traditional procurement approaches."