US Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters spoke at the Brookings Institution today, giving an overview of her thoughts on the future of transportation. Peters has been courageously promoting new ideas, like congestion pricing, that we really need or at least need to thoughtfully consider. Her market-oriented solutions are a potentially revolutionary alternative to the build-more-roads dogma of many past Secretaries of Transportation.
Still, some dogmatic ideology still shows through. Peters reflexively argues against the gas tax while the very principles in her speech support it. She argues for more local control and results-
oriented decisionmaking while using non-results-oriented concerns to block the locally-desired Silver Line expansion.
Peters began by relaying powerful statistics that build the case for congestion pricing—or, as Newt Gingrich suggested she call it, a “convenience fee”. Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, traffic that represents a $72 billion drain on the economy. Congestion pricing in the 98 largest metropolitan areas, on the other hand, would generate $120 billion a year in revenues.
Most agree that the current system doesn’t work very well. Congress directs significant transit money to pet pork projects and “bridges to nowhere”. Federal transportation dollars not allocated with earmarks go into discrete pots of money that can only be used for a specific purpose, like highway construction or small transit lines, “modal silos” that prevent broader thinking or local decisionmaking. This “stovepiped approach,” Peters argued, is “more focused on process than performance.”
Peters wants to focus on three main areas: Transportation safety, the interstate highway system and a few other key national corridors, and mobility in metropolitan areas. Congestion pricing falls into the third category. The second, as you may note, assumes that highways represent the best way to move goods while making no mention of intercity rail. When I asked about this, she replied that getting away from “modal silos” will allow “incentivizing other investment” in high congestion corridors like Boston-DC. But by listing the interstate system, rather than all modes of intercity travel, as her top priority, it’s clear that silos aren’t completely purged from Peters’ thinking.
Secretary Peters strongly supports local decisionmaking, using federal dollars to “encourage local officials to pursue sustainable congestion strategies” like congestion pricing and HOT lanes. We need to have federal money “leverage investment by states and localities.” Every dollar spent could bring in three or four in local and private money and “tap into the $400 billion in private capital available for intrastructure.” To open the faucet on that money, Peters wants to remove federal restrictions that prohibit tolls on many roads, expand pubilc-private partnerships and “allow jurisdictions greater flexibility.”
A former county executive from Buffalo, New York asked about our decades of overbuilding infrastructure that has created sprawl, to which Peters reemphasized the value of local control. Of course, local control is a great principle until Virginia decides their top priority is Metro expansion to Dulles, at which point the focus on process roared back as Peters and the FTA raised their eleventh hour concerns about WMATA, MWAA, and other issues that are more about process than performance.
Several questioners asked about her opposition to the gas tax. “If the American people were clamoring for gas tax increase, we would have one,” she declared. But, asked one questioner, why would they accept a congestion charge which the American people don’t seem excited about either? Peters feels the difference is that the congestion charges (or “convenience fees”) go directly to local government, and people support pricing when they know the revenues will fund local improvements. That’s entirely true, but a gas tax could just as easily be dedicated to local improvements if the tax revenue went to local governments.
Peters also emphasized the importance of reducing dependence on foreign oil, through more efficient vehicles and other means. A gas tax, therefore, is “contrary to our environmental goals.” I can’t figure out what she means: economics tells us if we tax something, people will do less of it. Taxing fuel directly, therefore, is the most immediate way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Despite the occasional Republican talking point showing through, Peters is clearly very committed to solving the problem of congestion and even the environmental impacts of driving, even if her solution is to make sure people can drive faster at higher cost rather than providing alternatives to driving altogether. Peters said that HOT lanes and congestion cordons were really only first steps to a better, longer-term solution of having a “VMT-based form of payment,” which is “convenience priced” in the highest congestion areas and lower in other areas. That’s a great direction to go, even if a gas tax and construction of rail lines, despite Peters’ opposition, are equally great steps to take along with congestion pricing.