Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta's speech in Utah last week followed a familiar script. In recent weeks he has been traveling the country, giving speeches from within high-volume companies that rely heavily on the nation's transportation infrastructure. In Utah, the site was the Internet giant Overstock.com.
The reason for this tactic is simple. It illustrates how vital public highways are to the economy. But the message he attaches to this illustration that the federal government no longer will be the sole driving force behind alleviating congestion is one that Americans won't be glad to hear.
Mineta's visit to Utah had a bit of a "preaching to the choir" tone to it. One of his main objectives is to get states to pass laws making it possible for private businesses to enter into partnerships with governments for transportation projects. Utah already has done this.
His emphasis, instead, should have been directed toward rank-and-file residents of the state who commute to work each day. One of the state's most likely solutions to the need for more highways is to contract with a private company to build a toll road on the west side of Salt Lake County. That private company may even be from a foreign company.
Utahns can't be blamed for resisting this solution. After decades of free highway travel, the thought of a toll road similar to those in congested eastern states sounds drastic. But the nation has fallen behind in serving its transportation needs. The population is growing, and public resources are needed elsewhere. People need to understand that alternatives are few.
Mineta also wants to stress the need to use public transportation and to nudge private employers to allow more telecommuting. We're not sure if telecommuting is an answer. Much of the increase in traffic in recent years seems to be due to things other than simply commuting to work. As for public transit, much of Utah again is ahead of the curve. With the exception of Utah County, the Wasatch Front is well served by reliable transit.
Utah has to face a serious question of fairness in regard to its toll-road plan. West-side residents are rightly concerned that they will be paying tolls while folks on the east side are not. Beyond that, however, the list of viable alternatives for highway construction is getting thin.
As Mineta made clear, places like Overstock.com can't wait too long for Utahns to fund highways with traditional means.