Obama transportation pick urges role for private sector

Transportation Secretary nominee Ray LaHood described public-private partnerships and the tolling of new roads and bridges as “outside the box” ideas the US government should consider in reauthorising an important transport spending bill later this year.

Ray LaHood, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation said US government should consider tolling and public-private partnerships as alternative solutions to meet the country’s growing infrastructure spending needs.

“We are going to reauthorise the transportation bill this year and there is not going to be enough money to do all the things that all of us want to do and I think we do have to think outside the box,” LaHood said while speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Ray LaHood

The transportation bill will determine how sources of funding for infrastructure, such as the Highway Trust, a government fund for highway construction and maintenance that is primarily funded through taxes on gasoline sales, fund, raise and appropriate money.

Asked by Democratic Senator Amy Klabuchar (Minnesota) to describe some “out-of-the-box” ideas for thinking about infrastructure financing, Lahood answered: “These public-private partnerships.”

“The tolling of new lanes, tolling of highways is a different way of thinking about it. I think of tolling bridges. If people need a new bridge, we need to think about those kind of opportunities that would help us pay for the kind of infrastructure needs that all of us know are very, very important,” LaHood added.

LaHood said that tolling should only be extended to new toll road lanes and bridges that are built – not existing roads that have already been paid for with public funds.

In recent years, the issue of tolling existing highways has come to the fore as some cash-strapped states, notably Pennsylvania, considered ways to raise additional funds. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who passed legislation in 2007 prohibiting the tolling of existing federal highways in Texas, greeted LaHood’s response with approval.

LaHood also called the Highway Trust fund a “dinosaur” and said finding ways to improve its funding sources would be one of the biggest challenges Congress faced this year.

“If we’re going to think innovatively in the reauthorisation, those are some of the ways that we need to think about those things, differently than just the gasoline tax,” LaHood said.

The Senate is widely expected to confirm LaHood as the Secretary of Transportation. The department had a fiscal year 2008 budget of $67 billion and 53,900 employees across 12 agencies.