Gribbin nomination hearing cordial, but hits home on privatization

| Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and others in the Bush administration continue to promote privatization of highways and infrastructure and now their nominee for the DOT’s chief legal advisor comes from a company that is major player in the privatization arena.

David J. Gribbin, nominated by President Bush to be the chief general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation, was in the hot seat even before he got to his Senate Commerce Committee nomination hearing last Thursday in Washington, DC.

“I spent two hours in traffic with seven kids in the car, so I thought the hearing would be the easy part of the day,” Gribbin said during some otherwise serious testimony about congestion, privatized toll roads and railroads, and about the DOT’s promotion of private-sector funding for infrastructure.

But it turns out the real “hot seat” was in the hearing, where questions from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, remained cordial – even complimentary at times – but contained an underlying skepticism about private-sector control of infrastructure. He led Gribbin into discussion about toll roads by first asking him about a possible privatization of Amtrak.

“Discussion should take place before there is any precipitous action,” said Lautenberg.

That goes for roads, too, he said.

Lautenberg asked Gribbin to identify the public benefit of the privately operated Dulles Greenway, a toll road that Gribbin’s employer – Macquarie Holdings – has control of for the next 50 years. Gribbin admitted he only uses the Greenway when other DC-area highways are congested.

“The choice it really came down to in that case was, are taxpayers willing to pay a little more for that facility and have the option of using it or not have a facility at all?” Gribbin said.

Macquarie Infrastructure Group, operator of the Dulles Greenway, and Gribbin’s current employer, Macquarie Holdings, are both subsidiaries of Australian company Macquarie Bank.

Macquarie is a familiar name to many truckers because it is one-half of a foreign consortium that paid the state of Indiana $3.85 billion in 2006 for operational control of the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years. Cintra of Spain is the other partner in the Indiana lease.

Lautenberg’s questions turned to how private operators of railways and toll roads would react during emergencies that required evacuations.

Gribbin responded that government has the call over emergencies and can order toll operators to lift tolls or reroute traffic during an emergency.

Lautenberg asked Gribbin about a possible privatization of rail systems in the Chicago area, about which Gribbin was unfamiliar.

Gribbin referenced the Chicago Skyway – which is 45-percent controlled by Macquarie – as an example of successful privatization.

“That’s not a good argument for privatization,” Lautenberg calmly disagreed.

In a comment directed to Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Lautenberg said, “That system is really broken down, Mr. Chairman.”

Sen. Inouye, D-HI, asked Gribbin to keep the best interests of people who use the transportation network in mind if he is confirmed to join Transportation Secretary Mary Peters at the DOT. Gribbin is a former government coworker of Peters when they both worked for the Federal Highway Administration.

Serving as legal advisor for that department will be a tough job, committee members said.

“Our nation’s transportation system is slowly collapsing under the tremendous stress of increased congestion caused by growing passenger and freight demand and years of under-investment,” Inouye said. “All modes of transportation are plagued by stubborn safety problems.”

Gribbin must await approval by the committee and a Senate confirmation vote if he is to get the job.

– By David Tanner, staff writer