Feds AWOL on Transportation, Say DOT Former Leaders

State and local governments must step up outreach to private sector to fill void.

There is a void in political leadership in transport infrastructure development and an opening for the private sector to fill the breach, four former U.S. secretaries of transportation said Thursday.

James Burbles Credit: Marty Rosenberg

Former Secretary James Burnley, who served from 1987-1989, said, “The political leadership is incapable of figuring it out right now. It is going to take the private sector coming together,” he said at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association 30th Annual P3 in Transportation Conference.

Former Secretary Samuel Skinner, 1989-1991, said, “Infrastructure all over the country is crumbling and there are no user fees to pay for it.”

Samuel Skinner Credit: Marty Rosenberg

Over recent years, more than $185 billion has floated into public private partnerships for transportation investments, said Jennifer Aument, president of Transurban, which works in the P3 arena.

Aument moderated the panel with the four former cabinet secretaries whose candor and rejection of Trump administration capabilities stunned some in attendance.

Former USDOT secretaries panel at ARTBA’s P3s in Transportation Conference, from left to right: Moderator Jennifer Aument of Transurban, the 2018-19 P3 Division president; former DOT secretaries Samuel K. Skinner, 1989-91; James H. Burnley IV, 1987-89; Rodney E. Slater, 1997-2001; and Mary E. Peters, 2006-09. Credit: ARTBA

“The political leadership is incapable of figuring it out right now,” Former DOT Secretary James Burnley.

Robert Poole Jr., director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, said afterwards that he had heard the secretaries express similar views in a private meeting behind closed doors Wednesday evening, but was startled they were so openly critical in a public conference.

While private sector engagement is vital, policies are needed to streamline programs to spur even more improvements for roads and highways, many experts say.

About three dozen states have laws allowing for public private partnerships in infrastructure but the models used vary, experts said.

Skinner said the Trump Administration, the House or the Senate should step up to promote P3s – public private partnerships.

“It has to be driven out of Washington,” he said. “Someone has to create an alternative to user fees and use public private partnerships. It isn’t the same game we use to play to sit here and grovel for an earmark or gas tax.”

Former Secretary Rodney Slater, 1997-2001, said, “We are not stepping up on the federal side.”

We are the most mobile economy in the world and need to maintain that to grow our economy and enhance our democracy, he said.

Totalitarian societies do not worry about the mobility or its citizens and broad dispersal of its goods and services.

America does, he said

Former Secretary Mary Peters, 2006-2009, said, “The biggest thing we are lacking is political leadership to make it okay to bring private money to the table.”

Mary Peters; Credit: Marty Rosenberg

Armed with the proceeds of the fuel tax for decades, she said, “We became complacent.” Europe experimented with new forms of infrastructure finance, while the U.S. fell “behind the curve.”

“The biggest thing we are lacking is political leadership to make it okay to bring private money to the table,“ she said.

Federal leadership on infrastructure development is hampered by “trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see,” Burnley said.

Addressing that dilemma creatively by courting private investment is a path forward.

“Baby boomers have one more chance,” Slater said. “We have to address it in the final shot we have or we going to get run over by the millennials.”

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