What China Might Teach America About How to Build Highways

By   /   April 21, 2011  /   No Comments

By Mike Klein, Editor

Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Georgians who drove to work this morning likely did so while giving little thought to what kinds of new roads should be constructed, whether tunnels are reasonable alternatives to above ground traditional highways, how to implement electronic payment on high speed tollways and whether public-private partnerships like those building roads in China could also build roads in America.

Where most folks only see concrete, Sam Staley sees opportunities.  “As one of the fastest growing regions in the United States, you have a lot of challenges,” Staley said during his address to Georgia Public Policy Foundation members Tuesday at the Georgian Club in Atlanta.

Staley has a twenty-year reputation as one of the nation’s leading land use and transportation policy experts.  Much of his time the past four years was invested in chronicling and advising China on the massive expansion of its new national highway system.  He is currently providing counsel to Illinois on a proposed almost total redesign of Chicago-area transportation.

The following excerpts focus on four primary content areas that Staley emphasized Monday.  Click here to view his entire presentation on the Foundation’s YouTube site.  Click here to follow his power point presentation.  Click here for a biography on Staley who is director of urban growth and land use policy at the Los-Angeles based Reason Foundation.

Establishing National Priorities

“Transportation issues are second and third order priorities in Washington, DC.  They are never first order priorities.  Transportation will never be able to compete for the attention of congressmen when they have to deal with Medicare, Medicaid, defense, flare-ups in the Middle East, you name it.  There are going to be a dozen or more issues that are going to rise to more important levels than transportation.

“To be honest, the reason we have been able to do as well as we have up until now is because most of our presidents have ignored transportation, let the transportation secretaries basically handle it, and we’ve had a dedicated revenue stream in terms of the gas tax to fund it.

“The gas tax is going to be gone within the next 20 or 30 years. Some people think it’s the green technology investments that will drive it.  It’s really not.  It’s India, China, Brazil and Africa.  As their growth begins to ratchet up the demand for oil …that is going to put the pressure on gas prices in the U.S.  If you think $4 a gallon is bad, it’s going to get worse.  But here’s the key:  We’re not going to give up our cars.  What we’re going to do is figure out a different way to power those cars.  We’re simply going to change the fuel.”

Atlanta Managed Lanes Initiative

“I love at this point, first blush, your managed lanes networks.  You’re thinking about this as a network, not as individual facilities.  What we learned from Chicago is that most of the economic benefits … come from having a network that works well and functions efficiently.  So the fact you’re thinking about building this all out is really pretty darn critical.

“It’s not about building one segment of ten miles. While that certainly benefits the people that use it directly, where you get the regional benefits is your ability to link all these disparate destinations together in a system very similar to what we are proposing for Chicago which will allow you fast access to most major points within the region.”

Funding Next Generation Transportation

“We believe there’s no choice about where we’re going in terms of finance.  It has to go toward more direct user-paid, beneficiary-paid type of finance because that is the only one that is going to be sustainable.  The other is to make sure, particularly in this climate, that those facilities are delivered efficiently and cost-effectively which means public-private partnerships have to be a critical part of the solution.  They are not a panacea, but they are a critical element.

“Irrespective of whether you think high speed rail is effective as a project, it clearly diverted attention from bread and butter issues and an even bigger discussion about who really should be responsible.  My view is that when we talk about roads on a day-to-day basis, really those discussions need to be moved to the state level because they are in the best position to determine what the priorities are.”

China Public-Private Partnerships

“Why did communist China start using public-private partnerships? … Remember, we’re talking about the early-to-mid 1980s.  Well, it was very simple.  They didn’t have any money.  The economy did not generate any revenue.  The question is, how do you build highways, how do you build transit systems, how are you going to build this infrastructure if you don’t have money?

“Well, you go across the border to Hong Kong.  You go to all those private capitalists and you say, if you have money to invest we have a place for you to invest it.  Twenty years later they’ve got the equivalent of the U.S. interstate highway system linking up all the major cities of China.

“One of the interesting things I learned about China was how much of this construction was not driven by the national government, in fact, almost none of it.  All these public-private partnerships were controlled at the state and municipal level.  The national government did the planning.  They said okay, the ends have to connect, but they backed out on the financing part.”

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