Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | February 11, 2009

Becky FengerPeter-ing out

Rarely does one have a chance to get up close and personal with a member of a Presidential Cabinet, rarified as the air is around such a heady position. An opportunity presented itself during a policy forum at the Goldwater Institute last week.

Mary E. Peters was U.S. Secretary of Transportation from Sept. 30, 2006 until Jan. 20, 2009 when she was replaced by Ray La Hood. Peters spent two decades in the industry, literally working herself up from the proverbial bottom to the top of the heap. As Secretary, she managed a $61 billion budget with 61,000 employees, overseeing air, maritime and surface transportation. Her ascent was aided in no small measure by her “people skills,” interacting pleasantly with bureaucrats and agency personnel.

One of her admirers is Mike Krusee, Chairman of the Texas House Transportation Committee from 2003-2009. According to his scoop sheet, he is recognized as one of the nation’s leading architects of innovative solutions to transportation funding and policy challenges. Krusee said that Mary Peters was the first person to define transportation as a philosophical problem, not a funding problem. “The U.S. has no transportation policy, no performance goals at all,” he claims. “Our only policy is the CAFE standards,” he adds. Since he sees no relationship whatsoever between what things cost and what one pays, he and Peters think a solution is to align the cost through the use of toll roads. Fine with me; “user pays” is a worthy goal.

Another panelist was former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens who is currently involved in an infrastructure-based water and land development company with projects in Arizona as well as Colorado and Texas. Unlike Arizona, Colorado is not allowed to use General Obligation Bonds for projects. His advice is to monetize a state’s current assets. In Denver, for instance, half of their buses are privately operated. To no one’s surprise, they operate 40 percent cheaper than the government-run ones!

Public/Private Partnerships (P3s) can and do work. Panelist Gary Groat has over thirty-five years experience in planning major transportation projects across the country, and is responsible for developing P3s for Fluor Enterprises. (Kudos for his being a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army.) Groat runs down a list of the many benefits he sees from P3s: New ideas, new money, faster delivery of projects, lower costs, and public support when they view successful ventures. He spoke of the Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia (State Route 895), their first P3 project. “Basically, the state got a $324 million project for free,” he said.

The Pocahontas Parkway is an 8.8 mile tolled freeway that was built as a result of an unsolicited bid from Fluor Enterprises. Groat claims that better projects get built this way, since they are fueled by citizens desires for a specific solution rather than Department of Transportation designs to spend money “because it’s there.” Gov. Owens insists that government has more control over private contracts than its own workforce, when they don’t have to deal with deadwood civil servants who cannot be fired for non-performance.

Makes sense to me.

What made no sense whatsoever was the answer I got from Secretary Peters during Q&A time.

I asked her: “If you knew the inarguable facts that building Light Rail Transit in the Valley here would actually lead to more air pollution (carbon monoxide) and more traffic congestion with ridership below one-half of one percent, would you have stood there and christened this monster with a bottle of champagne as you did?” Like any good politician, she dodged the question. Instead, in essence she said that government rules forced her to send light rail money our way, since the money is there and must be spent on projects shown to have matching funds, no matter how unworthy. Fengernails to such thinking. Later she added that maybe we’ll luck out and riders will use it more than the paltry numbers of the rosiest projections. Sure they will, Mary. Sure.