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

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.