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American Shipper

Sen. Warner proposes telecom-highway partnership

Sen. Warner proposes telecom-highway partnership

Warner

   The U.S. government and states could raise desperately needed revenue for surface transportation infrastructure by leasing highway right-of-ways to telecommunication companies for broadband cable installation, Sen. Mark Warner said at a recent freight transportation conference in Washington.

   Installing fiber optic cable at the same time transportation infrastructure is constructed would also help get broadband service delivered faster around the country, which would give more communities the ability to participate in global commerce by moving information faster, the junior senator from Virginia said.

   The United States is 15th in the world in broadband deployment as a percentage of population.

   Warner, who initiated an effort during his term as governor of Virginia to install broadband fiber on several new road projects, said a formal policy should seek to lay dark fiber even if there are no immediate broadband users because going back in afterwards to put in the conduit is very disruptive and expensive.

   'A huge problem in building out broadband is getting the right-of-ways. It would be much less money than coming in three years after the fact and to go through the whole permitting process and dig up the right-of-way again,' Warner elaborated to a reporter after his presentation.

   The savings would give telecommunication companies an incentive to partner with government on surface transportation projects, he said.

   As governor, Warner started a $12 million fund that allowed broadband to stretch 700 miles through some of the most economically distressed areas of Virginia. He earned his fortune as a venture capitalist in wireless communication and was an early investor in Nextel.

   Warner said Congress should consider other types of partnerships that allow private sector investment in public projects as it prepares to draft a huge surface transportation spending plan for the next five years. But he cautioned that such deals must be carefully constructed to protect the public interest.

   'Too often I see private sector proposals under the guise of public-private, but the real intent is for the public side to take all the risk and the private side to take all the profits,' Warner said.

   He recalled that in the waning days of his administration in Virginia he received several proposals offering billions of dollars to privatize part of the Dulles Toll Road.

   'And sometimes, because we've not had enough sophisticated financial modeling on the public sector side, we've seen private sector players come with what looks like good upfront sticker prices, but which are really not good long-term value for the taxpayer.'

   Many legislators at the time wanted to grab what they perceived as free money, 'when in reality the business plan behind that billion dollars you would have flunked out of Business School 101 if you had accepted that deal because it was a bad deal for the taxpayer,' he said.

   'Public-private partnerships ought to be part of the mix but there needs to be a real analysis to make sure there is private capital at risk as well, that there is truly a sharing of obligations on the front end and sharing of the upsides on the back end,' he said at the conference, which was sponsored by the departments of Commerce and Transportation.

   The transportation reauthorization bill should also establish new metrics to help determine which highway, rail and transit projects are worthy to undertake, Warner said. Echoing other transportation experts and commissions that have studied the funding problem, the senator said the government needs to consider safety, energy usage and mobility instead of only vehicle miles traveled as criteria for evaluating new projects.

   The challenge, he said, is translating those theoretical concepts into specific measurements that can be quantified to help determine which policies and investments to pursue.

   Warner, who sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, expressed skepticism that a highway bill would be completed by both houses of Congress this year.

   The current spending plan expires on Sept. 30. Without new legislation the Department of Transportation will have to carry over existing programs and spending levels.

   The Virginia Democrat expressed support for more funding of transit and high-speed passenger rail, adding that free-market critics fail to realize that 'there's no public transport system in the world that breaks even on a cash flow basis,' and there are subsidies in the highway programs that benefit motorists and truckers. ' Eric Kulisch

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