Lawmakers need to consider moving toward "creative public-private partnerships," such as through the development of toll roads, in order to adequately fund the nation's infrastructure, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at a public transportation conference here yesterday.

Speaking to members of the American Public Transportation Association, LaHood also said lawmakers should be open to the idea of giving local transit agencies operational funding ability in the next multi-year authorization bill.

But the secretary, who took heat last month from the White House for advocating a mileage tax, clarified that the opinion was his own and not President Obama's.

After speaking generally about the Obama administration's commitment to transit growth and high-speed rail funding, LaHood pointed to the recent addition of a tolling lane on Interstate 95 in Miami-Dade County.

"That's the way we need to be thinking," he said. Lawmakers and the Obama administration are expected to revise the current funding system, capitalized mostly from gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, in a forthcoming bill to replace the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, which expires Sept. 30.

Transportation industry stakeholders including those representing state transportation departments have supported more private investment, such as through the development of toll roads.

Asked about his thoughts on proposals to give local transit systems flexibility to use Federal Transit Administration funds for operating expenses such as labor and fuel, LaHood said he believes in being "open minded" about such ideas.

Federal capital grants can help local agencies acquire and build first-rate equipment, but that equipment still needs to be operated, he said. "Your local economy is hurting to the extent that it's hard to find the money to hire experienced people," LaHood said.

He stressed that transit and housing will be handled more collaboratively by the Obama administration, and high-speed rail will be a funding priority.

So-called livable communities, or residential areas with transit access, will be "one of those areas that we will work on very extensively."

He also said that California is "in a pretty good position" for receiving part of the $8 billion of high-speed rail funding through the stimulus package.

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