LittleSis brings transparency to the quiet names: people who are not necessarily officeholders, who may not be very well-known, but who exert significant influence over the policymaking process. They make decisions and advocate for policies that affect our lives in profound ways, but we are not well-equipped to hold them accountable or understand their sphere of influence. From time to time, we’ll use this space to give special attention to one of these individuals.
Today’s “quiet name” is Mort Downey. I picked Downey, a former Deputy Secretary of Transportation and recently a member of the Obama Transition, because I believe his career trajectory, influence, and policy outlook shed light on the rationale behind the low levels of public transit funding in the stimulus.
Some background on the stimulus: House Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar wanted $17 billion in public transit funding in the stimulus package, but by the time the House bill was presented, it had been slashed to $9 billion. The White House was behind the cuts, and Oberstar and Larry Summers reportedly engaged in a shouting match. Congressman Peter DeFazio later called out Summers for being anti-infrastructure. $3 billion of the cuts were eventually restored.
Supposedly, the Obama team’s single most important calculus when determining what made it into the stimulus package was whether projects were “shovel-ready” – projects that can get underway quickly and provide a short-term boost to the economy. But according to many respected economists, including Dean Baker and James K Galbraith, the stimulus package doesn’t do near what it could in terms of funding shovel-ready mass transit projects. In other words, shovel-readiness is not an adequate explanation for the low levels of funding.
The name Mortimer Downey caught my eye because he offered up this bogus explanation to defend the Obama team’s cuts in an interview with ShovelWatch, a stimulus tracking project spearheaded by The Takeaway, WNYC, and ProPublica:
“You have to be realistic about how fast and where money can be spent,” said Downey, who no longer has a formal role in the Obama team. “Some of the things in the transportation and infrastructure proposal are great long-term proposals,” but, Downey said, they can’t get started quickly enough. He noted the Obama administration will release a budget this year, and there will be a new transportation appropriations bill. “I don’t think you can reach an overall conclusion about how well transit is faring until we see all those things. Otherwise it would be a rush to judgment.”
Downey is a well-respected transportation expert. He has impressive credentials: Assistant Secretary of Transportation under Carter, CFO and Executive Director of the MTA in the 1980s, Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Clinton. He was an Obama Transition team lead for the review of the Department of Transportation. You can see it all on his LittleSis profile. Recently, the Washington Post mentioned him as a candidate for Transportation Secretary, calling him the potential “wise man” pick.
But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the wise man doesn’t wield his substantial influence on behalf of the public interest.
Who does he speak for? Since leaving the Clinton administration, Downey has worked as a self-employed transportation consultant at Mort Downey Consulting, and as President and then chairman of PB Consult, a transportation consulting subsidiary of the engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff. PB Consult advises clients in various transportation markets on a whole range of strategic issues: project planning, finance, public-private partnerships, regulatory issues, and so on.
PB Consult’s core business appears to be infrastructure privatization. Two of the three deals featured on the front page of the company’s website involve the privatization of transportation infrastructure – two toll roads, in fact: the A25 Québec and the Northwest Parkway Toll Road in Colorado. The third deal appears to be another Wall Street boondoggle, involving the purchase of port container terminals by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.
This is what the sage’s firm is proud of?
PB Consult is also a member of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. “Public-private partnership” is apparently the accepted industry term for infrastructure privatization (I’m guessing it plays better with the public).
Downey has established himself as a cheerleader for infrastructure privatization in recent years. In 2007 he penned an opinion piece for Traffic World, an industry magazine, titled A Role for Public-Private Partnerships. Downey argued that private collaboration was the best way forward for the nation’s transportation infrastructure, given the funding crisis:
Facing this staggering shortfall in funding, traditional approaches have been increasingly augmented by partnerships of private groups with public agencies, which during the last five years have begun pumping larger amounts of money into the system.
There are many forms of PPPs and ways for the public and private sectors to collaborate as partners to leverage scarce public resources and expedite needed transportation projects, while protecting and promoting public interests.
The argument is smooth and innocuous-sounding, and it’s easy to see why he is a high-paid spokesperson and lobbyist for Wall Street’s infrastructure privatization effort.
He also appears to be something of a spokesperson for the Obama administration, and his transition role indicates that he is well-regarded by the Obama team, even if he did not get the Transportation post.
Anyway, his argument in Traffic World begs the question: if funding shortfalls are “staggering,” why wouldn’t Downey see the need for more transit funding in the stimulus bill?
More on the way, but if you’re interested in the pitfalls surrounding privatization, particularly with respect to transparency, check out this Progressive States Network report.