Blog Transportation Transformation Group Challenges Status Quo

There’s been growing concern about the state of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, as evidenced by a proliferation of private sector initiatives to influence policy. This includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Let’s Rebuild America” campaign; the Rockefeller Foundation-supported Building America’s Future coalition founded by Gov. Edward Rendell (D-PA), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project led by Emil Frankel; the “Critical Commerce Corridors” proposal to establish a distinct and separately funded national freight transportation program; and the America Moving Forward coalition, whose goal is to champion the principle of public-private transportation partnerships and oppose legislative and regulatory moves to restrict their utilization.
Running through these initiatives is a common thread: the nation needs a new transportation vision. The current transportation program lacks a compelling national purpose and has become nothing more than a vehicle for revenue sharing, with a growing portion of the Highway Trust Fund revenue devoted to earmarks for projects of purely local interest. Lacking a well-defined national mission, the program is buffeted by lawmakers’ demands for a “fair share” of the revenue, rather than guided by the need to direct resources to where they are most needed. This would be toward preservation, renewal and replacement of aging transportation facilities of critical national importance.
Merely reauthorizing the existing surface transportation program, runs the argument, is not enough. That would simply perpetuate the status quo and encourage continued bickering between “donor” and “donee” states. What is needed is a fundamental rethinking, a transformation, of the national transportation program into a policy instrument that would help preserve and rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure, reduce metropolitan congestion and ensure increased mobility and economic competitiveness for the nation as a whole.
The Transportation Transformation Group
The latest entrant to espouse this philosophy is the Transportation Transformation Group, or “T2” Group, an initiative announced at a standing room only press conference which we attended on June 5 at the National Press Club. The T2 Group is an alliance of state government, finance, academic and private industry leaders “who wish to add a fresh set of ideas to the transportation policy debate,” said former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, representing Goldman Sachs, one of the founding principals of the coalition. As its name implies, the coalition supports the transformation of American transportation policy not just a reauthorization of current policies, pointed out Gen. Barry McCaffrey, member of the Board of HNTB Corporation and another coalition spokesman. In this respect, the new coalition is echoing and reinforcing what appears to be a growing consensus within the political, business and transportation communities, that perpetuating a programmatic status quo is not a solution.
Rather, Congress must establish a new long-range vision for the national surface transportation program — a vision that will enable states to employ new strategies and innovative finance techniques such as tolling, congestion pricing, and public-private ventures that would bring additional private capital to supplement the resources of the federal and state governments. A gas tax increase, as recommended by the congressionally-chartered Transportation Policy Commission, is not going to happen, said Gephardt, so “we might as well put it off the table” and think in terms of a new paradigm. The new paradigm should be shaped by customer-oriented, performance-driven objectives, and provide states with incentives to be entrepreneurial, added Dr. Joseph Giglio, another coalition spokesman.
T2 Group’s State Members Highlight Expanded PPP Opportunities
The coalition’s members include several states, notably Indiana, Florida, Texas and Utah. Their presence and influence is reflected in the coalition’s espousal of policies that would allow states full latitude to employ entrepreneurial strategies and enter into partnerships with the private sector to finance, construct and operate transportation facilities. In the coming decade, the solution to the nation’s transportation problems will not lie in an increased federal aid program but in greater reliance on state and regional-level approaches, noted Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes, another Coalition spokesman.
In a Q&A session, attention turned to how the Coalition could “make a difference.” Competition for attention will be intense, with Congress and the next Administration buffeted by competing and often conflicting proposals from various interests on how to address the challenges ahead.  A specific suggestion was made from the floor to urge the presidential candidates to include the subject of transportation infrastructure on the agenda of the proposed town hall meetings proposed by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), pictured at right, above, and accepted in principle by his Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), pictured above at left.
This would give both candidates an opportunity to discuss and take a position on a number of innovative ideas that are currently being debated on Capitol Hill and in the transportation community– such as a national infrastructure bank, federal capital budget for infrastructure, tolling, congestion pricing, public-private partnership financing strategies and long-term alternatives to the gas tax.
Let’s Have A Presidential Debate On Transportation Challenges
The idea of a debate by the presidential candidates on the problems of traffic congestion and the aging transportation infrastructure is most relevant and timely. How the next Administration intends to face the challenge of repairing and modernizing the nation’s highways, bridges and transit systems, what policies it ought to pursue to combat traffic congestion that increasingly paralyzes metropolitan areas, and how it intends to accommodate the growing demands for the transport of freight to preserve the nation’s global competitiveness, are three issues that should rank high in importance on the agenda of any future president. They certainly deserve a place on one of the ten proposed town hall debates.