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Senators Hear From Obama’s Transit Chief-in-Waiting

3:45 PM PDT on May 13, 2009

One of the Capitol's sad, secret truths is that members of Congress
often skip committee hearings on issues of vital importance to their
states -- and today's confirmation session with Peter Rogoff, the
president's nominee to lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA),
was no exception.

Just three members of the Senate Banking
Committee showed up to question Rogoff, a 22-year veteran of the
Senate's transportation appropriations panel. But lawmakers from both
parties demonstrated an acute awareness that the FTA needs to revamp
the arduous process of funding mass transit projects.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) decried the lengthy delays that have plagued the FTA's New Starts program,
which requires mass transit proposals to clear a number of bureaucratic
hurdles before qualifying for federal aid. "Many desirable projects
don't seem to make it into the mix," Reed said.

Rogoff strongly agreed, pointing to a recently released FTA report
that found a $50 billion backlog of needed repairs at America's seven
largest transit systems (Boston, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, San
Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.).

"Some of
these deferred maintenance issues quickly become safety issues," Rogoff
warned. He urged the senators to strike a balance between funding new
public transit projects -- for which "it's a lot easier to garner
enthusiasm" -- and repairing the already broken systems in major cities.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), mourning this month's defeat
of a proposed light rail line for Central Florida, broke from his
party's conservative bloc by declaring that mass transit should be a
central part of the solution to the nation's transit woes. He probed
Rogoff on the growing popularity of public-private partnerships to fund
transit projects, which has sparked heated debate in Washington.

The
fundamental problem with relying on private financing, Rogoff observed,
is that its inherent profit motive could prove incompatible with the
operating subsidies that mass transit often needs in order to survive.
Rogoff also ruled out any deals to sell off states' and cities' transit
assets: "When you get into some pure privatizations, when transit
assets are sold ... clearly, that's where we need to draw the line."

Rogoff
is likely to clear the Banking panel within a week or so, with a vote
by the full Senate to follow. As a former congressional staffer, he's
expected to win quick confirmation.

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