Governmental Matters

Sept. 1, 2008
Calling the federal approach to transportation broken, US Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said it's time for a new, different and better approach

Calling the federal approach to transportation broken, US Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said it's time for a new, different and better approach. Among ways of funding the new plan she suggested direct pricing options like tolling and empowering states to take advantage of the over $400 billion available worldwide for infrastructure investments from the private sector.

In describing the present Administration's new approach, Secretary Peters said, “Our plan will make it easier to pay for and build roads and transit systems. It will deliver fewer traffic tie-ups, better transit services and a stronger economy. It will make our roads safer and give Americans new confidence that the money they invest in transportation will actually deliver results.”

Among other aspects of the plan is creation of a Metropolitan Innovation fund to reward cities “willing to combine a mix of effective transit investments, dynamic pricing of highways and new traffic technologies.”

The new approach seeks to replace the current 102 federal transportation programs with eight intermodal programs. There will also be a streamlined federal review process to contain the same environmental and planning requirements as they do today, but with a reduction of the present 13-year average for designing and building new highways in the US.

The Secretary claims that the new framework will renew federal focus on maintaining and improving performance on the Interstate Highway System; address urban congestion and give state and local leaders greater flexibility to invest in their transit and highway priorities; create accountability measurers to ensure investments in transportation will actually deliver results; refocus emphasis on safety using technology and data-driven approaches, while giving states greater flexibility to address their specific safety challenges; and streamline the federal review process for new transportation projects.

These proposals will not go unquestioned and promise to be the focus of a great deal of debate by many interested parties well into the next Administration. In fact, immediately upon the Secretary's announcement of the new approach the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) called the plan nothing more than “slash and burn” policy.

Particularly with reference to public-private partnerships, OOIDA executive vice president, Todd Spencer, argued that, “The administration is on its way out, putting a For Sale sign on our highways as a last ditch effort to reward their buddies on Wall Street.”

Peters has personally briefed Members of Congress on the plan. “While I understand that this plan represents a significant departure from the status quo,” she notes. “I hope that Congress will shed partisan labels and come together to consider a piece of legislation that will keep our transportation system viable well into the next decade.”

The Cross-Border Controversy: Cancelled or Continued?

Four days after Congressional moves were made to end the contentious demonstration program, the Department of Transportation announced a two-year extension of it. Begun on September 6, 2007, the program allows a restricted number of Mexican trucks to operate within the US, beyond the 25-mile restricted commercial zone at the southern border. A limited number of US trucks have been allowed to operate within Mexico as part of the program.

The demonstration project engendered opposition from a number of organizations. Most vocal among opponents have been the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). Objections have focused on the qualifications of Mexican drivers and the safety of Mexican equipment being used, among other issues.

Representatives sponsoring legislation to end the program are Peter DeFazio (Dem.-OR), James Oberstar (Dem.-MN), John J. Duncan (Rep.-TN) and John Mica (Rep.-FL). H.R. 6630 calls for termination of the project. The bill received unanimous approval from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee which has sent it to be acted on by the full House when it returns from the August recess.

Congress has previously attempted to shut the program down by banning funding for it in a federal law that went into effect on December 26, 2007. DOT did not terminate the program then.

Days after the House Committee's actions DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator, John H. Hill, announced the cross border trucking demonstration project would be extended for an additional two years. Part of the reasoning was that companies might have been reluctant to participate because they are unsure of how long the project will last. With the extension, says Hill in a statement, they may join, making it possible to review and evaluate the project with more comprehensive data.

“FMCSA has adhered to the law and exceeded requirements established by Congress, both safety and otherwise, for implementing our obligations under NAFTA,” claims Hill. “To date, the project has shown that US and Mexican carriers can engage in cross-border trucking operations in compliance with applicable laws and with no compromise to public safety or security. In fact, Mexican trucks and drivers have established compliance rates equal or better to those of US trucks and drivers.”

In reaction to the announced extension, Teamster general president James P. Hoffa, said, “The blatant disregard that [DOT Secretary] Peters, Hill and the Bush administration have shown to Congress, which has time and again expressed overwhelming opposition to this unsafe program, is outrageous. They have continued down this dangerous road that threatens American drivers and their families despite a federal law that bans funding for the program. The federal law took effect on Dec. 26, 2007, yet the FMCSA claimed it did not understand its intent and refused to shut down the pilot project, which began shortly after Labor Day last year.”

Saying the Secretary of Transportation is continuing to flout the will of Congress, Representative Oberstar vowed that, “When Congress reconvenes in September, I intend to have the full House of Representatives approve our bill as quickly as possible, and make certain that the voice of Congress is heard loud and clear at the Department of Transportation and that this program is finally shut down.”

On the day after the program began last year, OOIDA filed a lawsuit intended to halt it with the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. The case has been argued and awaits judgment.

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