Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Deficit spending in Congress takes a toll on drivers

Mineta plan encourages private investment in public transportation

May. 16, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

WASHINGTON - Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta offered a modest election-year proposal Tuesday for dealing with the nation's transportation congestion problems.

The proposal does not contain major new funds for large-scale highway, port or airport projects.

Instead, the six-point Bush administration proposal asks Congress for $100 million to fund pilot programs designed to entice private investment in public transportation.

Among other things, the plan calls for identifying the three to five most congested transportation corridors for future relief projects.

"Congestion kills time, wastes fuel and costs money," Mineta said. "We need a new approach and we need it now."

Road and rail delays are a big issue for metropolitan areas like North Texas, which is not only a major aviation center, but also a crossroads for trucking and rail. And congestion is a maddening daily reality for commuters who burn time and fuel in their vehicles.

A 2005 Texas Transportation Institute report showed that peak-period travelers in Dallas-Fort Worth spend 60 hours annually in traffic delays - ranking the area the sixth-worst nationwide.

That costs billions annually in fuel and wasted time for commuters and businesses, said Mike Eastland, executive director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The report estimates that congestion costs the average peak-hour commuter in North Texas $1,012 per year in wasted time and fuel.

"It is bad . . . and it is predicted to get worse as time goes on," Eastland said.

The Bush administration proposal comes as Republicans are trying to show voters in advance of midterm congressional elections that they have solutions to the nation's most vexing problems.

The transportation congestion proposal was rolled out a day after President Bush unveiled his controversial plan for stronger border security. And it comes a week after the Republican-led Senate spent a week on health care issues - without approving a single proposal.

Rep. Pete DeFazio of Oregon, a senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said the proposal fell short, because it does not contain new funding and puts too much emphasis on unproven private-sector investment.

"They are acknowledging a very real and growing problem, but they have come up short with their solutions," DeFazio said. "There is no real discussion for enhanced taxpayer investment."

North Texas transportation experts agreed there wasn't sufficient funding. But they credited the transportation chief for focusing attention on rising congestion that threatens to choke the North Texas economy.

"It will distract from businesses wanting to relocate here or route freight through here," said Terry Pohlen, director of the Center for Logistics Education and Research at the University of North Texas.

In addition to road congestion, Pohlen said, there also are rail delays in Fort Worth where a major north-south line intersects with an east-west line.

Pohlen said he was disappointed that the initiative fell short of being a comprehensive policy that addresses all modes of transportation.

"It is a step in the right direction, but I would have liked to see a much broader strategy," he said.

Officials said financing road, port and airport expansions are difficult because taxpayers are hostile towards tax hikes to pay for big projects even though they are frustrated by congestion.

"The capital needs just in the city of Dallas and Texas are huge compared to the current resources," said Steve Taylor, president of the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

Mineta acknowledged that budget deficits make it hard to come up with money for new projects. But he denied that the president's tax cuts were at fault, arguing it has been difficult to raise transportation funds for decades.

As one solution, Mineta suggested lawmakers could give up pet pork barrel projects to fund transportation.

Specifically, the administration's strategy called for increased private investment in toll roads. Some communities are turning to that solution, although officials said it is too early to know if it will work.

Mineta said the $100 million in the president's 2007 fiscal budget could be used to demonstrate that such projects could be an alternative to relying on federal gasoline taxes.

Other initiatives in the proposal include:

_Focusing on freight bottlenecks, including those at the U.S.-Mexico border. The department proposed various teams and meetings with business leaders to deal with issues.

_Encouraging states to use federal funds to promote proven operational and technological solutions.

_Pursing partnerships with cities to test congestion pricing on toll roads, expanding bus service and encouraging employers to establish or expand flextime hours for employees who want to avoid high-peak travel times.


Dallas Morning News staff writer Tony Hartzel contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co www.dallasnews.com