Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Transportation Secretary Peters compares freeways to welfare

Peters: It's time to redefine federal transportation role

November 13, 2007

By Jaclyn Houghton
CNHI News Service
The Norman Transcript
Copyright 2007

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mary Peters believes transportation changes need to come from local and state leaders, much like the changes made to welfare in the 1990s.

She said that welfare programs began to have too many federal regulations and the costs to operate the programs skyrocketed. State leaders tried to get the federal government to be flexible on welfare reform, but the federal government did not listen - making the states take change into their own hands. The changes caused federal reform programs.

“And I see the same kind of ground swelling in transportation today,” said Peters, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Peters discussed transportation funding and state participation at The Council of State Governments Annual Conference in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

“We need change and change is indeed coming to transportation,” she said.

She advocates public/private partnerships, which may come in the form of toll roads. There are efforts to combat traffic congestion like Minneapolis’ plan to create High Occupancy Toll lanes, rather than High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.

Gary Ridley, director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said the state already has 13 percent of the nation’s toll roads. He said railway is also highly utilized to transport freight. He said regardless of how much input the state has on the federal highway system, the federal government must still play a role in providing funding.

Peters does not believe raising the gas tax, which is a major funding mechanism for highways, would solve the underlying funding issues for transportation.

Tyler Duvall, assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation, reported in an October meeting at the Oklahoma Capitol that he expects funding through the federal Highway Trust Fund to be depleted by 2009 with a potential $5 billion deficit. This is around the same time the federal highway bill will have to be reauthorized by Congress.

Kansas state Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, wondered what the future of alternative fuels will look like in regard to transportation over the next 10 to 20 years.

Peters said since the majority of transportation funding is dependent on the fuel tax, alternative fuels would change the funding picture.

“We must find new ways to find funding for transportation,” she said, noting that state governments are good “incubators for change.”

Kentucky Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, was curious what role the federal government might play in funding the construction of bridges that are used mostly for travelers from other states.

Peters said there might be an opportunity to single out projects of national significance for the federal transportation department to handle.

“I think the opportunity is in front of us to redefine the federal role,” she said.

Jaclyn Houghton is CNHI News Service Oklahoma reporter.

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