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House Highway Bill Transforms Role of Government, Private Sector

Posted By John Palatiello, Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The U.S. House of Representatives is beginning debate on H.R. 7, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, commonly known as the "Highway Bill”.

There are numerous opportunities for greater private sector participation in the financing and delivery of infrastructure or public works. Dr. Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation summarized the need for increased utilization of the private sector in transportation when he told Congress in 2004, "the opportunities for private sector participation in transportation services runs a wide range. In many cases government agencies compete with private service providers or have forced private providers out of the market in order to maximize revenue for government services. In such instances the market would provide transportation services if government competition or regulation were removed.” He concluded, "Private sector participation in transportation services will either take the form of market provision or of provision under contract with a government agency in a public-private partnership. Government transportation services should not be allowed to compete with private services, nor should state or local governments ban or restrict private services to reduce competition with government services.”

The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, unveiled by Speaker John Boehner, Representatives John Mica and John J. Duncan, Jr. and other members of Congress, transforms the way the nation will design, build, own, operate and maintain these public works. For the first time in modern history, Congress is considering a bill that encourages, enables and empowers private companies to contribute to the nation’s infrastructure needs. Given the grade of "D” on the American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card, and the estimated $2.2 trillion price tag for bringing these facilities up to a passing grade, private products, services and investment are critically needed. Numerous provisions in the House bill do just that.

H.R. 7 provides for public-private partnerships for new toll highways, provisions to eliminate government competition in rest stops, buses, and other aspects of transportation and infrastructure. There are provisions encouraging use of the private sector for engineering and design services. And most important to MAPPS, the bill provides a long-overdue strengthening of current law regarding utilization of the private sector for surveying and mapping activities.

Since the original enactment of the federal-aid highway program in 1956, the law has provided that the private sector should be utilized for photogrammetric surveying and mapping activities. When Congress enacted the National Highway System Act in 1995, the provision (33 USC 306) was strengthened to require the Secretary to "issue guidance to encourage States to utilize, to the maximum extent practicable, private sector sources for surveying and mapping services for projects”.

Other than issuing a 1½ page guidance memorandum in 1998, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration have done little to implement, enforce or otherwise provide oversight of this provision. As a result, over the past 13 years, the opposite of the intent of Congress has occurred. In many state highway departments, scarce gas tax dollars are dedicated to operating in-house surveying and mapping functions that duplicate and compete with the private sector.

MAPPS members have long complained that a number of state DoT’s have used Federal highway money to build in-house capabilities in surveying and mapping. Numerous states have their own airplanes and cameras for mapping aerial photography, analytical stereoplotters (mapping computers), GPS satellite surveying receivers, LIDAR systems, photographic laboratories, and other expensive equipment to perform services already available from private firms. With the recent advent of mobile mapping systems, private firms are once again experiencing state DoTs purchasing equipment for in-house activities without regard for the availability of mobile mapping services from private firms that have already invested in such systems. Some state DOT's even market these services outside their own agency, performing work for other state agencies, city and county government, even non-government organizations, in direct competition with the private sector.

FHwA has not monitored State compliance with current Federal law and does not conduct audits or in any way perform oversight of State transportation agencies, which are expending Federal funds, to determine if these surveying and mapping programs are being operated in the most efficient and cost effective manner, to fully implement section 306, or to prevent government competition with the private sector.

Section 1707 of H.R. 7 strengthens the current law provision on utilization of the private sector for surveying and mapping by state DoTs. It makes the policy on private sector reliance mandatory rather than discretionary, and requires US DOT and FHwA to take more action on an ongoing basis to assure that states utilize, and do not duplicate or compete with, private mapping firms.

If the debate in the Presidential campaign has taught us one thing, it is that profit is not a dirty word. Harnessing the power of profit and the free enterprise system can advance the Nation’s Infrastructure needs.

Contact your Congressman TODAY and deliver a simple message: "Vote "YES” on H.R. 7”.

Tags:  Congress  DoT  Highway  mapping  Private Sector  surveying  Transportation 

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