Chairman Oberstar’s Transportation Proposal

My colleague Bob Poole posted our first comments regarding chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar’s proposal for the new transportation bill. As he noted, the bill is touted as “transformational.”

A few observations may be in order as we begin to dissect the proposal.

Reducing the number of highway programs from over 100 to just four is a good approach. This will be a great simplification for the states as currently each program comes with it own set of “rules.” There are however requirements for states and metropolitan planning organizations to submit plans to the US Department of Transportation for approval in order to access funds. Included are the proposed Metropolitan Mobility and Access program and the Critical Asset Investment program (road and bridges). This might work if the bureaucracy is nimble (rarely is that the case), otherwise it will be a process that gets bogged down and creates delays.

The proposal also sets up an Office of Expedited Project Delivery and further streamlines the environmental review process. As we have seen, highway projects can take some 10-15 years from conception to “shovel ready.” This office is supposed to focus on the largest and most complex projects. Advancing transportation projects faster will be an important addition for the states and could save time and money – if the program works as envisioned.

Also of note is that the proposal recognizes there will be a need for private investment in highways and establishes an “Office of Public Benefit” within the Federal Highway Administration “to ensure that the utilization of tolls and PPPs (public-private partnerships) enhances the nation’s surface transportation network and provides maximum benefits to the public.”

While this office is supposed to replace the current patchwork of overlapping toll requirements and pilot programs with a single, centralized federal toll authority (which is a good thing), it is also designed to review and approve (or reject) state plans for toll rates on all federal-aid highways, methods for adjusting those tolls, and plans to mitigate toll impacts. It would be better if the stated goal for this office was to advance public-private partnerships, tolling and congestion pricing instead of setting up barriers.

In addition, this new office would oversee new (yet to be disclosed) federal requirements on public-private partnerships. More definition will be needed regarding these “federal requirements” for PPP’s but such requirements could be an additional hurdle that slows or blocks needed infrastructure. The transportation bill should be enabling more PPP’s, not hampering the private capital that states and local governments need so they can fund and complete needed projects.

As the legislative language and more details become available all of the Reason transportation team will have comments.