Private Plan

Private Plan

Copyright 2008, Traffic World, Inc.

One of the most common criticisms of the U.S. Department of Transportation in recent years has been that the department lacks a clear, coherent national vision for transportation.

That''s always struck us as off the mark. In fact, the DOT vision for the nation''s transport systems has been uncommonly unified and disciplined. Whether that vision serves the real needs of those who depend on a national transportation system, however, is entirely another matter.

That was starkly evident in an article in The Washington Post last week detailing the efforts of senior officials at DOT to implement plans to address congestion on the highways. The idea isn''t so much about ending congestion, however, as it is about overturning a decades-old consensus on transportation and highways and handing those highways, along with the public trust, over to private interests.

That means the nation''s truckers and their shipping customers face the dubious prospect, should such efforts take root, of fissures in the national transportation network deeper than the crack in the concrete that shut down Interstate 95 outside Philadelphia last week.

The DOT advanced its privatization policies last year by sending money to projects in five cities that are anchored by toll-focused congestion pricing.

Now, we''re not against highway privatization as a practical matter, and in an economic laboratory, market pricing can be an efficient way to allocate limited transportation assets. For example, market pricing principles work at Southern California''s ports, where the PierPass and its OffPeak pricing program have helped reduce congestion and wait times by imposing higher fees on drayage companies that want to use the ports during the day. It works because it involves businesses making economic decisions in a strictly commercial environment.

But to this Department of Transportation, road privatization is the singular goal and congestion really appears to be only a convenient stalking horse for the overarching goal of turning the management of national assets over to private investors.

That''s evident not because the DOT is seeding favored tolling plans but because it is funding them at the expense of other important efforts. The Post reported the $850 million in the DOT''s Urban Partnerships program would have gone to cities for plans including public transit.

There may not be any freight on city buses and trains, but the shipping world has a lot at stake in public transit because it remains, for all the bricks transit systems take, the most cost-efficient way to move people around population centers. And while tolling may seem an efficient way to allocate supply and demand, the unit-cost economics of public transport that are important to any private transportation company can also reduce congestion, not with an economic club but with a service incentive.

But this DOT has cut backing for bus and rail projects by more than two-thirds. No one in the transportation - neither passengers nor freight shippers - is well served by an attempt that is seemingly aimed at more efficiently allocating limited resources for transportation systems but in reality is aimed at pushing those systems into private hands.