Exciting Times Ahead for Transportation

Posted: May 14, 2008 10:19 AM
Exciting Times Ahead for Transportation

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on rebuilding America's infrastructure. It was held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the heart of the Nation's Capital. It is the 200th anniversary of the Gallatin Plan, initiated by President Thomas Jefferson, which planned canals and post roads. And it is the 100th anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt's conference with all of the Nation's Governors to discuss infrastructure. That began the National Governors Conference.

This conference was initiated by Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). He is known as the leading Congressional proponent of light rail and streetcars. In addition to Blumenauer, Congressmen Tom Petri (R-WI) and Chris Shays (R-CO) also spoke at the conference. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), one of the most principled conservatives in the Congress, is fond of saying that the only two activities sanctioned by the Constitution are to provide for the common defense and to build infrastructure.

I served on the panel which dealt with transportation. All of the panelists agreed that we need a vision to explain to the American people what needs to be done. The major disagreement among the panelists occurred as to whether the existing mechanisms we have to fund transportation projects are adequate or do we need to start over. The Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, upon which I have served for the past two years, recommended that we do not merely re-authorize the highway and transit program which expires next year but rather that we have a fundamentally different way of authorizing projects. It is an utter disgrace that it takes more than a decade and a half between the time that a project is proposed and it is funded. Cost escalation alone eats up most if not all of the federal contribution.

Finally, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is permitting Salt Lake City to build two different light-rail branches simultaneously rather than fully completing one project before the next line is built. Now Houston would like the same consideration for several light-rail lines which have been approved by the voters.

Some of the panelists thought that the existing system only needed to be perfected whereas some of us contend that we just need to start over. One question arose - to wit, do we need another commission to deal with infrastructure matters beyond transportation? I have no objection to that idea but what I really would like to see is a transportation czar who could implement our recommendations.

I am grateful to Blumenauer for taking this initiative. We had an excellent audience which asked extraordinarily good questions. One of the participants was John Norquist, President of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He likes to tell people that his organization and the Free Congress Foundation (both of which have Congress in the title) are the only two organizations which favor both mass transit and school choice. He and Blumenauer were guests on the Right Hour, my radio show on the Right Talk Radio Network, Both were optimistic that Congress would face up to the need to deal with infrastructure. One issue which has proved very controversial is the sale or lease of highways and bridges to private investors. Our Commission came out four-squarely against the sale or lease of our infrastructure to foreign governments and foreign investors. Some politicians who have supported these public private partnerships are now in trouble. Americans simply do not want to see private interests, especially foreign interests, controlling our infrastructure. Granted money is tight and it is tempting to raise easy money that way but people who have paid for these roads with tax dollars do not like the idea of leasing or selling them.

Next year is going to be a critical year for roads and rails. This conference offers a preview. Exciting times are ahead of us.