Vol. 18, No. 5; Sept/Oct 2007
This is the concluding part of a three-part series in which we put forth our "vision scenario" for the surface transportation program. In the first part (March/April) we described what a future highway and transit program might look like. In the second part (May/June) we presented a concrete plan of action, including the funding mechanisms, necessary to implement the vision. In this concluding part, we discuss the philosophy underlying the proposed program.
The bridge collapse in Minneapolis threw a spotlight on the precarious state of the nation's infrastructure. It also has made infrastructure financing a tempting subject for pre-election posturing. Like any major policy debate, the financing debate will involve strongly held points of view. At the risk of oversimplification, we shall call the advocates of the opposing perspectives, the Conservatives and the Innovators. Both the Conservatives and the Innovators see a need to increase transportation funding. And both condemn the excessive use of congressional earmarks. Where they differ is how to finance the funding shortfall.
Add the concept of "shadow tolling" to the roster of innovative financing methods. Introduced in the United Kingdom some ten years ago, the concept of shadow tolling (also called "availability payments") has crossed the Atlantic and is being considered by the Florida Department of Transportation in its I-595 corridor project. The state is inviting the private sector to help finance, build and operate a 10.5 mile stretch of elevated toll lanes intended to relieve congestion in the busy I-595 corridor that connects I-75 with the Florida Turnpike and I-95 in Broward County. The state is ready to commit $900 million to the project and is asking the private sector to finance the remaining $300 million of the $1.2 billion project as well as to build, operate and maintain the facility. But instead of letting out a toll concession wherein the private concessionaire would collect and pocket the toll revenue, the state proposes to collect the tolls and pay the private builder-operator a fee based on the number of vehicles using the toll facility.
More than a year ago we suggested that the era of multi-billion dollar system-building investments in rail transit is coming to an end. We wrote: "The 30-year effort to retrofit American cities with new rail infrastructure, begun back in the Nixon Administration, appears to be just about over. While federal capital assistance to transit will no doubt continue, its function will shift to incrementally expanding existing rail networks and commuter rail services rather than embarking on construction of brand new rail transit systems. ("The New Starts Program is Changing Its Emphasis," March/April 2006)." A recently released GAO report ("Future Demand Is Likely for New Starts and Small Starts," GAO-07-917, July 27, 2007) confirms our conclusion.
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