Transportation hope

Posted: May 31, 2006 12:01 AM

Washington is truly a strange place. Some of the highest profile issues receive nonstop reporting yet the immigration bill which the Senate passed is so radically different from that which the House of Representatives passed that a salutary outcome is unlikely.

As the Senate was considering the immigration bill, which may go nowhere, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission was holding its initial meeting, in the shadow of the Capitol at the main Department of Transportation Building. This Commission is comprised of Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta as Chairman and eleven other members appointed by the Republican and Democratic Senate and House Leadership.

Already this Commission has become one of the more serious efforts of a governmental group. I say this in part because I am privileged to serve upon it, at the behest of Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist, M.D. (R-TN), more commonly known as Senator Bill Frist. I have served on two other commissions during my years here and also am familiar with other commissions which have operated, operate or are waiting to be constituted. Nothing compares with the seriousness of purpose and dedication of this Commission.

Creation of the Commission was a portion of the much maligned "Bridge to Nowhere" transportation bill which Congress enacted last summer and which President George W. Bush quickly signed into law.

For a change, and for reasons yet unclear, the Congressional leadership set aside partisan differences and appointed unusually dedicated and clearly well educated people. For example, one of the most experienced Commissioners, who has forgotten more about surface transportation than most people in the field ever learned, is Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Frank Busalacchi. I found myself in strong agreement with everything he said. Who appointed him? House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). That is the point. Somehow Members of Congress this time seem to have reached beyond partisanship to select men and women of unmistakable knowledge and dedication. For example, Raymond Richard Geddes is Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Cornell University Department of Policy Analysis and Management. Mary E. Peters, National Director of Transportation Policy and Consulting with HDR Engineering Inc. in Phoenix, was Federal Highway Administrator in the first George W. Bush term. Steve Heminger is Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which handles regional surface-transportation planning of all types in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. Matthew K. Rose is Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad CEO. Stephen Odland is Chairman and CEO of Office Depot. (If you think his appointment is a bit misplaced let him share with you the data as to how many trucks Office Depot maintains and the miles they cover.) And so it goes.

A word about Chairman Mineta. In the past I have had disagreements with the Secretary of Transportation. However, I must say he conducted this initial meeting with energy, dignity and a real sense of purpose. My impression of him substantially has changed.

Congress has mandated that we complete our work by July 1, 2007. I suggested that we may need to go to Congress to seek more time. I was pleased that the Secretary raised that possibility at the press conference following the meeting.

Most reporters covering the event were institutional, working for transport daily or similar publications. So while Congress struggled with an immigration bill which receiving massive media coverage but which may go nowhere, a group of citizens is proceeding to offer transportation recommendations which could affect generations to come.

One of the presenters reported that in 30 years 70% of the American population will be located on or near the two principal coasts. Were that to come to pass it would cry out for effective transportation. My Free Congress Foundation colleague William S. Lind and I have made the point in earlier writings that over half the population does not have access to effective transportation which could cause them to leave their motor vehicles at home and use transit.

The Commission intends to review policy as well as revenue. Both will have nearly equal weight although the tilt may be toward policy. The work of this Commission well may be profound. If we could continue to put aside partisanship, and if as Chairman Norm Mineta stressed we also could put aside our personal agendas, for the good of the Nation we would have achieved that which Congress clearly wants of us.

Mineta was asked a sensitive question about a policy which to some degree would contradict the Administration's position. Mineta replied that he, too, has left his agenda at the door.

It is entirely possible that citizens will be able to accomplish that which Members of Congress could not. Citizens may produce a work product that points this nation in a different direction for 20 to 50 years. After all, later this year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's initiative to build for defense a national highway system. While some legislators may promote dead-end policies that either House of Congress may reject, I hope that my expectations for this Commission are not too high. I hope that the spirit of cooperation so evident at the first meeting will prevail. Then next year or a little later we may surprise the Nation with a flexible and workable transportation plan which Congress would be pleased to legislate into law.