Arizona diamond

April 18, 2002

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.

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.

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.  

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