Houston Chronicle: Feds endorse privatizing infrastructure, highways, airports

Link to Houston Chronicle article here.

U.S. to battle bottlenecks
New techniques to be used against traffic snarls
Houston Chronicle
May 16, 2006

WASHINGTON – Citing the adverse effects of traffic congestion on the economy, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta on Tuesday unveiled a plan to reduce backups in major metropolitan areas like Houston (yes, I’m sure this is a plan to deal with traffic and has nothing to do with big business).

The plan, which also is aimed at limiting delays in rail and air transport, will assure that the United States has the most efficient transportation system in the world, the secretary said.

“President Bush and I recognize the challenge that congestion poses,” Mineta said in an address to the National Retail Federation. “We need a new approach and we need it now.”

The Transportation Department estimates that roughly $200 billion is lost every year because of delays in road, rail and air transport.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, an average Houston commuter spent 63 hours caught in traffic in 2003, the fifth-longest per-person delay in the country. That wasted time and fuel resulted in a net loss of almost $2.3 billion, the institute reported.

If congestion continues to increase — as it has in recent decades — traffic problems will begin to affect more than just America’s largest cities. The department said small and medium-size cities could see significant backups in coming years.

Mineta said the Transportation Department will select a handful of large metropolitan areas to showcase technologies and procedures designed to ease highway congestion. These include express bus lines, electronic toll collection systems and methods of increasing tolls as roadways become more congested.

Once these techniques prove their effectiveness, Mineta said, urban areas around the country can adopt the ones that best suit local conditions.

States also should allow private companies to invest in toll roads and other infrastructure, Mineta said, noting that such public-private partnerships are vital if states hope to have the money to make crucial improvements. Similar arrangements, such as the leasing of a toll road in Indiana to a private company, have led to fierce debates in state legislatures.

“Some of what we are about to do will be indeed labeled controversial,” Mineta acknowledged.

Although he gave no details, the secretary also proposed partnering with the Department of Homeland Security to create a “border congestion team” to ease backups at border checkpoints. In addition, the Department of Transportation will look into expanding capacity and efficiency at airports. New York City’s La Guardia Airport was specifically identified as needing improvement.

No cost estimate was given, but Mineta acknowledged that “this will be expensive work.”