Out of Control Policy Blog

The DOT privatization conspiracy

Recently the editor of the useful magazine TrafficWorld wrote an unfortunately absurd opinion column damning the DOT for its "singular goal" of privatization of roads. I could say a lot about it, but my colleague Bob Poole beat me to it with this excellent letter to the editor.
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Dear Paul,

I am dismayed by your editorial, "Private Plan," in the March 24th issue. I don't have a problem with people having different views on what makes for sound transportation policy. That's the normal give-and-take of testing new ideas. But I'm upset when people mis-represent what is actually going on.

First, you criticize the five Urban Partnership Agreement grants whose purpose is to implement some form of road pricing as part of an integrated set of measures to reduce congestion. You criticize this as part of DOT's "privatization policies"–but none of these five projects involves any privatization whatever. I know, from first-hand involvement, partly as a consultant to Florida DOT helping them craft their winning proposal, and partly as a policy researcher keeping track of cutting-edge policy developments.

Second, you uncritically repeat an allegation in the Washington Post article that the $850 million used for these grants "would have gone to cities for plans including public transit." This is wrong on two counts. First, the funds in question arose unexpectedly when Congress failed to do its normal extent of annual earmarking of transportation funds, leaving these funds available as discretionary funds for DOT to use as it judged productive. The Office of the Secretary decided to use these funds for Urban Partnerships as part of its Department-wide Congestion Initiative (launched by former Secretary Norm Mineta). These added funds supplemented the very modest amounts DOT had on hand for the ITS and Value Pricing pilot programs, to provide large enough sums to make it worth cities' while to overcome the usual inertia about making significant change in transportation policy. (They succeeded, generating something like 19 proposals.) Second, to have a chance of winning, an Urban Partnership proposal needed to include all four of the following "T"s: tolling, transit, technology, and telecommuting. So as you can see, transit enhancement was a requirement.

Third, you make the astonishing statement that public transit "is the most cost-efficient way to move people around population centers." If you have supporting documentation for that statement, I would certainly like to read it. I have been doing transportation policy research for nearly three decades, and apart from extremely high-density traditional central business districts (Manhattan, London, Paris, Tokyo, etc.), public transit is hardly ever a cost-effective choice. There are dozens of peer-reviewed policy papers on the Reason Foundation website (www.reason.org/transportation) dealing with these issues. Most of urban/suburban America – Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, St Louis, Phoenix, etc. – has nowhere near the density to make transit viable, especially rail transit.

Finally, I would be interested in your source for the statement that "this DOT has cut backing for bus and rail projects by more than two-thirds." The last time I checked, it is the appropriations committees in Congress that decide how much federal support there will be for public transit, and that support has been going steadily upward during the Bush administration.

Sincerely,
Bob Poole
Director of Transportation Studies
Reason Foundation

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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