End Run or Creative Solution?

End Run or Creative Solution?

Public-Private transportation projects could provide money for roads, but at what cost?

Like a lot of Potomac residents, Diana Conway doesn’t want a second river crossing, at least not one that goes through Potomac. That’s why she doesn’t like a bill that is making its way through the legislature this session.

“I see it as a tool for building a bridge, and I’m opposed to building a bridge,” Conway said.

The bill, The Public-Private Transportation Act of 2003 (HB 1162), has passed the Senate (SB 497 which is not identical) and is, at press time, in committee in the House. It would allow for private entities to build roads. While this type of partnership has previously been allowed for several kinds of transportation infrastructure projects, such as ports, it has not been allowed for the construction of highways. If passed, the bill would allow for the construction of privately owned highways, similar to the Dulles Greenway.

MOST MAJOR transportation projects require some help, monetarily, from the federal government. Those projects then have to comply with federal standards.

“This is a way to make an end run around the current environmental and community standards,” said Tina Brown of Solutions Not Sprawl.

“It is likely to avoid or evade a number of key environmental protections,” said Steve Caflisch, transportation chair of the Sierra Club of Maryland.

Brown believes that if money is available from private sources, the federal well will not have to be tapped. “If a project is not federally funded, the federal laws are not applicable,” Brown said.

In particular, Brown is referring to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a review process which all federally funded transportation projects must undergo.

“You get a through environmental analysis. You get a thorough discussion of alternatives,” Brown said. “It allows for a lot of opportunity for community input.”

PROPONENTS of the bill say that is not entirely accurate.

“You do have to go through NEPA if [the project] hits a federal wetland or hits a federal highway,” said Rich Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

Some say that this is only partly true.

“It would only be just where the road connects with the federal highway,” said Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon Society.

“You’d likely have to look at the impact with the federal road,” Caflisch said.

Proponents of the bill point to language that forces potential road builders to abide by all applicable regulations. “The key word is ‘applicable.’ The concern is that the partnership could be structured in a way that’s so private that the laws wouldn’t be applicable,” Caflisch said.

BESIDES THE environmental concerns, there is the issue of sprawl and traffic congestion, and their chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Do the roads cause sprawl, or does sprawl, and its associated traffic, cause a need for more roads?

“We don’t have congestion because we’re building roads, we have it because we haven’t been,” Parsons said.

“If roads were the answer, I guess Los Angeles would be heaven,” Brown countered. In the case of privately built roads, there must be enough development around the corridor to make it profitable. “You’re counting on new development to pay for them,” Brown said.

“What these types of projects have been used for is primarily sprawl-inducing roads,” Caflisch said.

THE FISCAL IMPACT of the project is also at issue. Parsons believes that this could be a way of building new roads more quickly and with a smaller impact on the state treasury. “The benefit to the taxpayers is they don’t have to pay for it,” Parsons said.

“Basically, they’re promising this is a fiscal panacea,” Brown said.

While the private construction of a road would make it cheaper to residents in the short term, they might end up paying more for it. When a governmental unit builds a road, it then collects enough in taxes to maintain that road. When a private company builds a road, or anything else, it collects enough to maintain the road, plus a little bit more – profit.

“It’s free to the public trough, but, by the way, it’s going to have tolls,” Caflisch said.