Oberstar, DeFazio remain skeptical of highway privatization

| 4/19/2007

Pilot programs can provide a look into the crystal ball for a preview of a bigger agenda coming down the pike, even when the pike itself is the subject of those programs.

A U.S. Department of Transportation pilot program calling for private-sector financing of transportation projects is coming down the pike as part of SAFETEA-LU – the Safe, Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users – signed into law by President Bush in 2005.

The program, Special Experimental Project 15 – dubbed SEP-15 for short – aims to provide federal assistance to expedite public-private partnerships, according to government statements.

Examples of those kinds of projects include the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, several toll roads in Oregon, a tolled airport connector associated with the Pocahontas Parkway in Richmond, VA, a series of toll roads to extend state Highway 121 in Texas and an extension of Interstate 290 in Texas and a four-lane tollway in Travis County, TX.

Some key lawmakers are watching this crystal ball closely, namely House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, and the Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-OR.

DeFazio chaired a subcommittee hearing Tuesday, April 17 on Capitol Hill on the subject of private funding mechanisms, and issued the following statement:

“SEP-15 was created by the Federal Highway Administration with the goal of finding innovative ways to improve project development and delivery,” DeFazio said. “This may sound good, but the devil is always in the details.”

SEP-15 would assist speedy project delivery through contracting, environmental compliance procedures, project finance and acquisition of right of way, according to a Federal Highway Administration document.

Oberstar told the assembled panel of transportation administrators and private-sector officials he is skeptical of public-private partnerships being used for highway finance.

“It is often asserted that the private sector can provide good and services faster, cheaper, and of better quality than can government agencies,” Oberstar said. “But I have yet to see conclusive evidence of that.”

DeFazio said the subcommittee will be watching closely and conducting future hearings to ensure private financing methods do not undermine existing laws to protect the environment and public accountability.

Officials with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association are leading the charge to let lawmakers know where truckers stand on the privatization of highways.

“Let’s not lose all that expertise that the government has and hope and think that the private sector is going to do it the best way,” OOIDA Government Affairs Representative Mike Joyce told Land Line. “Let’s be cautious here,”

A list of proposed projects being considered for the SEP-15 pilot program can be found by clicking here.

– By David Tanner, staff writer