Secretary Peters defends her position on tolling, privatization

| 2/6/2008

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters went before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works this week to defend her position on tolling and privatization.

Peters chaired the National Surface Transportation Policy and Review Study Commission, but did not sign off on the commission’s final report released Jan. 15.

A majority of nine commissioners are calling for a temporary increase in the federal fuel tax by 25 to 40 cents per gallon and for the fuel tax to be scrapped altogether by 2025 and replaced with a vehicle miles tax. The majority also calls for a limited use of tolling and privatization.

Peters and two other commissioners broke from the majority and wrote their own report defending the current administration’s reliance on states and increased tolling to solve funding issues.

“It’s clear that we’re just limping across the finish line when it comes to funding,” Peters told the Senate committee on Wednesday, Feb. 6.

“It is shortsighted, in my opinion, to continue to rely on a fuel tax as the primary method of funding surface transportation.”

The central problem, she said, is not how much something costs, but how it is paid for.

One point Peters agreed with the rest of the commission on was that funding has not kept up with transportation needs and that congestion is a growing concern.

Senate Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said she was disappointed in the administration’s viewpoint of putting burdens on states to come up with funding solutions when the federal government is responsible for 40 percent of all transportation funding.

“How we come up with $225 billion a year, by simply allocating our resources more efficiently and encouraging states to impose fees such as tolls and congestion pricing, it’s just not going to happen,” Boxer said.

She said the federal government allocates $40 billion to surface transportation, roughly four months worth of expenses for the war in Iraq.

“We seem to have an open checkbook for other countries at this point but not for the taxpayers,” Boxer said.

Peters’ presentation was brief and so was the question-and-answer period that followed.

Several senators asked Peters to assist Congress in prioritizing federal funding leading up to the next transportation re-authorization bill in 2009.

Following Peters’ testimony, a second panel of transportation stakeholders came before the Senate committee. The panel consisted of Debra Miller from the Kansas Department of Transportation representing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation issues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Jay Etta Hecker, director of physical infrastructure issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office; and Gregory Cohen, executive director of the American Highway Users Alliance.

The panelists came together to defend the majority opinion of the National Surface Transportation Revenue Study Commission – that the federal government increase its role in funding the national transportation system.

“We would welcome private construction of new roads ... however consumer protections are critical to ensure that tolling and (public-private partnerships) do not create barriers to commerce or cause safety problems,” Cohen said.

Cohen added that the prospect of a 40-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal fuel tax is disturbing.

“The highest amount of the gas tax that they propose is somewhat controversial, but I think there is agreement that it needs to go up,” he said.

Boxer asked the panelists about the eventual move toward a vehicle mileage tax, or VMT. She reiterated concerns about privacy with the use of a satellite-based tracking system.

“I don’t know why we have to come up with this thing about spying on people and putting GPS’s in their cars and spending millions of dollars figuring this out,” Boxer said.

She suggested people paying their highway-use taxes when they renew vehicle registrations.

Hecker explained that tracking vehicle miles traveled involves not only miles traveled, but times, distances traveled and locations.

Boxer said she will oppose vehicle tracking by satellite because of privacy concerns.

“The whole notion of knowing all of this about people is really concerning to me as chairman,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to have this battle. I just think it’s a non-starter.”

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will meet next week to discuss similar topics with Transportation Secretary Peters and other panelists.

Before any commission recommendations are implemented as policy, legislation must clear the House and Senate.

– By David Tanner, staff writer