Arizona diamond

Mary Peters uses her experience in the Southwest to sharpen FHWA

Article April 18, 2002
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As I placed my tape recorder on the table, FHWA
Administrator Mary Peters promised to hold her paper shuffling to a minimum.
She didn’t want to create any kind of disturbance.

In reality, her Capitol Hill file has grown fat. Changes due
to Sept. 11 and the negative effects of the Revenue Aligned Budget Authority
(RABA) have attacked industry leaders with countless amounts of data and
information demanding action.

But Peters, former director of the Arizona DOT, had it all
sorted out on this particular afternoon at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino in Las
Vegas. During my 30-minute interview on the opening day of ConExpo-Con/Agg
2002, the new chief exuded confidence and stability—two traits
complemented by a wholesome approach.

The following is her take on pressing issues like FHWA’s purpose, RABA and work-zone safety.

 

So far you have come in with a lot of energy. Prior to
your appointment as the administrator what was your feeling on the direction
the FHWA was taking?

I felt the Federal Highway Administration was a good
organization and I certainly worked well with the (Arizona) state
administrator, but I felt they had too many senses of direction. There were too
many things on their plate. My dad used to say, “You can do a few things
well or you can do a lot of things poorly.” I thought (FHWA) was going in
too many different directions. We had to get back to our core mission, our core
business, and that is the highway component of the transportation organization.
We needed to focus on that. If you learned how to drive with a stick shift like
I did you don’t put your foot on the brake and your foot on the gas at
the same time. It doesn’t work well when you do that. So we had to
relieve some of those factors that were keeping us from accomplishing our transportation mission.

After interviewing a number of our stakeholder groups and
taking input from people in our own organization we felt what was keeping us
from accomplishing what we needed to do were lack of safety and security in the
transportation system. There were just too many lives lost.

The second issue was environmental streamlining and
stewardship. Too many projects weren’t being built because they were hung
up over some environmental process or another and we felt we had an obligation
to try to free that up. We need to work with our federal resource agencies and
other agencies to try to find a way to prevent these projects from getting
stuck in various areas. It’s just taking too long. I am pleased to say,
and I didn’t do all this myself, they have shaved an entire year off the
amount of time it takes to do an environmental impact statement. In terms of
concurrent processing we need to give each state authority to process a lot of
those lower-level environmental clearances like categorical exclusions. We need
agreements with federal resource agencies, such as the Corps of Engineers, so
we don’t have to start all over again every time we need a 404 permit on
a project. You need to go through the whole nine yards again and there just has
to be a better way to do that. So we’ll be working with the Department of
Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers and a lot of other federal resource
agencies.

 

Have your initial goals changed at all since your FHWA
initiation?

Yes. And I think the whole issue of RABA caused us to
refocus because even though we knew as early as last summer that RABA was going
to be negative all of us were quite surprised when the numbers came out with
the president’s budget.

We tried to get that information out as quickly as we could,
but nonetheless that has caused us to recalibrate and say we really need to
look at funding predictability and stability over time.

We thought we would work on that during reauthorization, but
clearly the magnitude of negative RABA moved into the near term.

The other change deals with the issue of security in the
transportation system. (Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta) calls Sept. 11
“the new reality,” and the importance and necessity of protecting
our transportation system from terrorist attacks. Ours is much more difficult
to protect. I mean, roads and bridges, how many entry and exit points do you
have? I’m not underestimating the importance of transit systems or
aviation but you generally have fixed exit and entry points with those systems.
Even with the water ports, there are only so many ways to get into that and so
many ways to get out. 

 

With the economy slowly climbing out of this recession,
you have more sectors asking for more money (e.g., Homeland Security,
Department of Defense). It seems like there is going to be more competition for
funds that are available. What will the highway industry have to do to ensure funding levels are going to remain high?

I think we have to do two things. First, and most important,
we have to protect the sanctity of the Highway Trust Fund. The trust in the
Highway Trust Fund is when you fill up your car with gasoline you rightly
expect us to use that money (from the gas tax) for transportation. That’s
a performance agreement that we have with each other. You don’t pump gas
in your car and say, “Well, I’m going to build schools and
I’m going to take care of health care needs.” That’s a trust.
You pay revenue for a certain purpose. So protecting that fund is the most
important thing we need to do.

The second deals with the components that support the
Highway Trust Fund, and we need to ask ourselves if they will continue
supporting our transportation needs into the future. I would say the answer to
that is no. We really need to look at that trust fund and the components of it.
The gas tax method is outdated. There are cars that get 60 miles to the gallon
today. There are hybrid vehicles. There was a guy in front of me the other day
with an electric car. He wasn’t paying taxes to build the transportation
system that he was using. More and more of that is going on. In fact, one of
the biggest contributors to a negative RABA was the increased use of ethanol.
There was a 28% increase in the use of ethanol. If that continues, and it
likely will, it’s going to have a negative effect on the Highway Trust
Fund. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have hybrid or
electric vehicles or use ethanol, but the agreement we had with the Highway
Trust Fund was that it would approximate our needs. It’s not doing that
anymore so we have to look at the composition of the Highway Trust Fund.

I’d like to be an optimist and think we will get
General Fund money for transportation absent the component that goes to
transit. But my governor when I was in Arizona told me these were the important
things: health care, children and education. Transportation wasn’t among
those. Even though she very much believed in transportation, when I went to her
and said we needed General Fund dollars to build transportation her response
was, “Children, health care and education, those are General Fund
needs.”

 

I was just at the National Asphalt Pavement Association
convention in San Francisco. They had a general session on reauthorization and
a lot of the leaders there were saying we need to have RABA.

I don’t disagree with them there. But we need to have
a mechanism that closely approximates the tax revenue that goes into the
Highway Trust Fund and then expenditures. Our goal is to not have a big bank
account here. Our goal is to meet the transportation needs. So some mechanism
that takes tax receipts and closely correlates that to spending is important,
but I think we could improve on the RABA formula so we don’t have these
peaks and valleys. That’s devastating to people who are trying to plan
and deliver transportation programs and it’s devastating to the industry.
They can’t staff up or staff down and do so efficiently. So we have to
have a good, steady, stable, predictable funding source.

 

Another concern is the experience of a relatively new
Congress by the time the pass-age of TEA-3 shifts into high gear. Is the
industry educating legislators now?

The key is educating members of Congress to make sure they
understand some of the factors that we just talked about. Some really
don’t know what’s going on. They see a need; they see a funding
source. You have to make sure they understand the Highway Trust Fund is there
to fund transportation needs, not to balance the budget.

I have to say I’ve been impressed with the enthusiasm
of the new members that I’ve had the opportunity to meet, and you still
have good people out there who know and understand this.

 

Work-zone deaths have been on the rise. I’ve heard
two sides of the story. Some attribute the rise to the increase in highway
construction activity. Others say the data used to gather this type of
information wasn’t really adequate and is just now getting up to speed.
What’s your take on the death-toll rise?

I truly believe it’s a little of both. I think the
reporting mechanisms have improved because in the past police or other
enforcement personnel who would investigate a work-zone crash wouldn’t
necessarily categorize it so that we could pull it out and put it in the right
category.

But the other is we are doing a lot more work as a result of
TEA-21 and positive RABA. There is a lot of work going on, but there are things
that we can do to make those work zones safer in spite of the increased level
of work.

 

Part of your philosophy is we need to build our way out
of this congestion problem plaguing urban areas. Explain
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I don’t think building or adding capacity is the only
solution, but I think it’s been ignored for the past few years and it has
to be part of our solution.

(Arizona) grew 40% in the metropolitan areas and Nevada was
even faster than that. You simply can’t expect to meet the transportation
needs with the existing systems so we have to acknowledge that we need to add
capacity where it’s appropriate to do that. It’s going to take more
funding. I think we can do a much better job of creating an environment that
would attract private sector capital. Lessen some of the risks so where
it’s appropriate we can get private sector capital into the mix.

Also, we shouldn’t necessarily equate increased work
to increased fatalities. That’s an equation that I refuse to accept. We
can do better than that. We can train, we can plan, we can educate the public
and we can do a whole bunch of things to try to lessen those fatalities.
Nothing less than zero (fatalities) are acceptable. It may not be realistic,
but do you want me to say five?

 

There have been some projects over the last few years
where the initial cost ballooned during the construction/design phase (e.g.,
The Big Dig, Oakland Bay Bridge). Do you view this as a problem and are we
taking any steps to avoid inflated costs?

We are taking steps and I think we should talk about the
Central Artery (The Big Dig) in particular. What was originally proposed was an
expansion of the Central Artery. What ultimately was built was the Central
Artery plus a tunnel that goes out to the airport and a whole host of other
issues. The scope of that project changed dramatically. Someday we are all
going to be very proud of that project, but it certainly has not earned a good
name.

There are some things we need to do to prevent this
happening again. First of all we need to be more realistic of what we’re
proposing back in the planning stage. Estimating in the planning stage is just
that, they are the best guesses, but we need to do the best job we can.

We have to periodically update the public on what it is that
we’re proposing, what it’s going to cost, how long it is going to
take. Here’s what we want to accomplish: We want to realistically tell
the public what we can build with the money we have available and in what time
frame. The more accurately we can estimate and project costs the better off we
are.

We do have to contain costs during construction, but I
don’t think there are states that lowball things on purpose. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  

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