Correction to This Article
This article about the Transportation Department in the Bush administration incorrectly says that Rep. John Mica's congressional district includes Miami. Mica represents northeastern Florida.

Letting the Market Drive Transportation

By Lyndsey Layton and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 17, 2008

It took a few moments for Tyler Duvall, the top policymaker at the Department of Transportation, to digest the news from the Hill. But when he realized what it meant, he was stunned.

Last year, Congress decided not to dictate how the department could spend its discretionary funds. No earmarks, no strings, no arm-twisting from lawmakers to direct money to bus systems or other mass-transit projects in hundreds of communities nationwide.

Duvall and other top department officials were staring at nearly $1 billion. And they knew exactly how to spend it.

They used the money to seed five high-profile experiments, in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Miami and Seattle, that feature "congestion pricing" -- tolls that increase when traffic is heavy. The idea is to reduce traffic by discouraging some motorists from driving during peak hours.

"It's almost sort of un-American that we should be forced to sit and be stuck in traffic," said D.J. Gribbin, the department's general counsel and liaison to the White House, who worked closely with Duvall on the project.

For Gribbin, Duvall and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the goal is not just to combat congestion but to upend the traditional way transportation projects are funded in this country. They believe that tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to construct and maintain roads.

They and other political appointees have spent the latter part of President Bush's two terms laboring behind the scenes to shrink the federal role in road-building and public transportation. They have also sought to turn highways into commodities that can be sold or leased to private firms and used by motorists for a price. In Duvall and Gribbin's view, unleashing the private sector and introducing market forces could lead to innovation and more choices for the public, much as the breakup of AT&T transformed telecommunications.

But their ideas and actions have alarmed transit advocates, the trucking industry, states struggling to build rail projects and members of Congress from both parties.

"They have a myopic view," said Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Pricing transportation to drive down traffic may make market sense, but it harms the public, he said. "This was a country based on some system of equality. People are paying their taxes and have representation. You can't exclude them from having a fair return."

Critics such as Mica do not oppose all tolling, but they argue that the traditional mechanism for funding roads and transit, the federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, must be increased so that the nation's Highway Trust Fund does not run out of money in three years. Some Democrats contend that the Bush administration wants to starve the fund so that states will be forced to sell off roads to private firms, charge tolls and ration the best access to those willing to pay for a faster commute.

"Everything they're doing is designed to drive things to privatization," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure highways and transit subcommittee. DeFazio said the nation long ago settled that roads are public goods. "They're just trying to undo 200 years of history and go back to the Boston Post Road."

Even if the next president reverses its policies, the Bush administration will leave a legacy of new toll roads across the country, a growing number of public roads leased to private companies, and dozens of stalled commuter rail, streetcar and subway projects -- including the $5 billion extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport.

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