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Transportation Tug-of-War

The nation's roads and bridges urgently need attention. The question is who can best provide it.

In 2005, Congress created a bipartisan commission to study the nation's transportation system, and to report back in three years about what it needed.

The timing was no coincidence. Congress had just passed a reauthorization of the existing federal transportation law, and was well aware that the law would be up for renewal in 2009. The lawmakers couldn't have known, of course, that in 2007, an interstate highway bridge would collapse in Minneapolis, adding increased urgency to the issue. The bridge disaster served to raise the stakes for both the commission report and legislative battle that will surround the law's reauthorization.

The report, entitled "Transportation Tomorrow," is now a public document. It doesn't evade the issues. The commission recommends an increase in federal funding for transportation infrastructure, to be financed by a higher federal gas tax, a new vehicle-miles-traveled tax, or both. It also calls for an enhanced role for the federal government in transportation policy overall.

A handful of commission members, though, didn't buy that. Among the dissenters was the chair, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who argues in the "minority view" section of the report that the key to future transportation policy shouldn't be new taxes for public infrastructure, but market-based and private sector-funded projects. If anything, Peters insists, the feds should back down a little from their dominant role in transportation.

Peters and her allies believe that markets and private-sector funding offer two advantages over past practice: They would drive projects to the places where the genuine need is, and they would unleash vast amounts of private capital that now sits waiting for an investment opportunity. Peters thinks the current system is just too slow, too political and too government-driven.

In particular, the Peters group would like to see privately funded toll roads that practice congestion pricing -- the busier the road, the higher the toll. This camp especially has been touting the idea of a private lease for what now is the publicly owned Dulles Toll Road, connecting the Washington D.C.-area Capital Beltway with Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Private operators would take the money they make on the tollway and invest it in a rail link to the airport, avoiding the $5 billion expenditure in public money that experts estimate the rail line would cost taxpayers under existing plans.

That's an intriguing proposition that may well be worth testing. What's not clear is whether it will ever garner majority support in Congress. On the commission, the privatization proponents were outnumbered by a faction that said pushing transportation funding too far toward the free market was placing too high a bet on the idea that the market can fulfill Americans' transportation needs.

This group argues that a healthy, functional U.S. transportation system is a basic and collective right, the cost of which shouldn't be shouldered by individual users of specific projects but by the entire citizenry. It has strong supporters in Congress, among them Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Peter DeFazio, a senior Oregon Democrat who dismisses the Peters Doctrine as "a bizarre, neocon view of transportation." DeFazio argues that a rigidly market-driven approach might get a few toll roads built, but would likely leave public transit -- rail and bus -- wanting for funds even as demand for public transportation is on the upswing.

This debate, of course, is hardly new. The fight over roads versus transit and private versus public investment comes up every time a major transportation act renewal is on the table. But the sense of urgency communicated in "Transportation Tomorrow" can't be ignored. Nor can the scope of the prescription it proposes: a $225 billion annual investment in transportation for the next 50 years, from all sources -- private and public. States and localities don't have that kind of money. And it's hard to imagine the private sector kicking in the lion's share.

So it's time to get past the ideological fight and start having some reasoned conversation about where and when private investment makes sense in the grand scheme of U.S. transportation, and where and when it doesn't. Both the public and private sectors have important roles to play.

A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.
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