GAO wants transportation policy ‘re-examined’

| 2/12/2008

Officials with the U.S. Government Accountability Office are calling for a fundamental re-examination of the current strategy for tolling, congestion pricing and public-private partnerships being promoted by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.

GAO officials released a report Monday, Feb. 11, stating that public-private partnerships need more transparency and public accountability to be a sustainable transportation philosophy. The report is titled “Highway Public-Private Partnerships: More Rigorous Upfront Analysis Could Better Secure Potential Benefits and Protect the Public Interest.”

Public-private partnerships, or PPPs, are the result of deals struck between governments and private businesses to fund and/or complete projects. A well-known case for truckers is the lease of the Indiana Toll Road to private investors from Spain and Australia in mid-2006. The investors paid the state government $3.85 billion for the right to collect tolls and assume control of the roadway for 75 years.

GAO officials say some PPPs are necessary, but without an increase in transparency, public-private partnerships may have a negative impact on interstate commerce.

“Though concession agreements can limit the extent to which a concessionaire can raise tolls, it is likely that tolls will increase on a privately operated highway to a greater extent than they would on a publicly operated toll road,” GAO officials stated in the report.

The authors of the report have called for a strong federal role in transportation funding, not the private-sector approach promoted by Peters and others in the current administration.

Rod Nofziger, director of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said he agrees with the GAO’s contention that private toll operators are driven by profit and are not held to the same public accountability standards as governmental agencies such as state DOTs.

Nofziger said the report echoes many of the concerns OOIDA has had with public-private partnerships.

“It essentially lays out that while public entities could receive a large chunk of money upfront for a lease, there are huge pitfalls that public-private partnerships could have for the public in general,” Nofziger told Land Line.

Nofziger said he believes the strength in the report lies in the GAO’s statement that “there is no ‘free money’ in public-private partnerships.”

“So much of what the report says supports our contentions,” Nofziger said. “Any PPP should be taken with caution and be fully transparent to the public so the public can decide whether it’s a good idea or not.”

GAO officials reported their findings at the request of various state and federal elected officials.

Click here to view the GAO document.

– By David Tanner, staff writer