SPECIAL REPORT: Bush budget proposal short on highways, long on privatization

| 2/6/2007

Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007 - Not everyone was surprised when the president's announced transportation budget funding request fell short of funding needs.

Monday, Feb. 5, President Bush unveiled a $67 billion funding request for transportation in his 2007-08 budget. The Federal Highway Administration portion of the budget request is proposed at just more than $40.3 billion - $40.4 billion was outlined in the provisions of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act that President Bush signed in 2005.

But, the shortfall didn't catch OOIDA by surprise. Mike Joyce of the Association's Washington, DC, office went on the record with "Land Line Now" on Friday, Feb. 2, saying that not only a budget shortfall was anticipated, but the now-public shortfall is more than likely kicking the door wide open for public-private partnerships.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has had public-private partnerships on its agenda for quite some time, even recently providing model legislation for states seeking to privatize their highways and toll roads.

Joyce said that agenda will likely be furthered later this week with an event scheduled at the White House.

Friday, Feb. 9, the White House has scheduled a meeting that is billed as a "Transportation Legislative Leadership Summit." The keynote address will be given by Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, her topic - public-private partnerships.

Participants in that summit include privatization notables such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and private-sector representatives from companies like Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure Group and New York-based Merrill Lynch.

A budget with a transportation funding shortfall followed up by a showcase event touting the purported benefits of these types of partnerships has raised more than a few eyebrows - and concerns for those who actually use the roads being eyed for public-private partnerships.

"Look at the names of those going to speak at the Summit and I'll tell you who you're missing - you're missing highway users," Joyce said.

Highway users are even ignored to the level that no members of Congress are slated to speak at the Summit.

But that doesn't mean highway user groups are being quiet when it comes to public-private partnerships. OOIDA has spearheaded a coalition of highway user groups - including AAA, motor cyclist groups, RV groups.

Joyce said the coalition will work to keep people informed on what's going on in the U.S. DOT and at the White House in regards to private leasing of U.S. infrastructure.

"We really need to wake people up on the ground," Joyce said. "We need to get all the dogs out on the porch get them barking and wake up the neighborhood ... let them know what's being sold, and that what is being sold is what they have already paid for."

The Bush administration is plugging ahead promoting his proposed budget. In statement shortly following the release of the president's proposed budget, Secretary Peters said a balanced budget is necessary by 2012.

The budget proposal, she said, is big on safety, fighting congestion and employing technology, and that the administration wants to cut spending.

Peters and other top transportation officials gathered Monday, Feb. 5, to promote the budget proposal by media teleconference.

"The president's $67 billion request for the department reflects these priorities," Peters said in a prepared message.

Reducing congestion is included in a $175-million package.

The Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. DOT intends to use that funding to, in part, "enable the use of public-private partnerships to successfully build roads and highways faster and more economically ..."

- By Jami Jones, senior editor, and David Tanner, staff writer