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Transportation Secretary Discusses Concerns About National Infrastructure

August 15, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis two weeks ago has sparked a number of questions, but few answers, about the state of the nation’s aging transportation system. The woman charged with tackling some of those questions is Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters. She joins us now.

Welcome, Secretary Peters.

MARY PETERS, U.S. Secretary of Transportation: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: The president came out after the Minneapolis bridge collapse and said, “Secretary Mary Peters will be my point person on this and will fix this problem.” And then he came out a few days later and said, “Taxes will not go up.” A $188 billion infrastructure problem, how do you begin?

MARY PETERS: Well, Gwen, let’s start with the Minneapolis bridge collapse. We don’t yet know why the bridge collapsed, and certainly NTSB is continuing their investigation. It’s a very important investigation, and we want those answers. And in the interim, our thoughts and our prayers are with those who tragically lost their lives or were injured in that collapse.

But what it has teed up is a larger discussion on whether or not we’re spending the money that we have today in the right places, setting the right priorities, and, indeed, if the gas tax is even the appropriate mechanism to use to fund transportation in the future.

GWEN IFILL: So Congressman Jim Oberstar, the head of the Transportation Committee in the House who is also from Minnesota, has suggested a nickel a gallon. He says that’s worth it.

MARY PETERS: Well, Gwen, the problem is, I think we have to examine where we’re spending money today. And if we think that we’re spending money today in the highest and best use, then perhaps we would need to make that discussion, but I don’t believe we are.

You know, I think Americans would be shocked to learn that only about 60 percent of the gas tax money that they pay today actually goes into highway and bridge construction. Much of it goes in many, many other areas.

And as we don’t — we’re not disciplined today to say, are we spending that money where it is the highest and best use of that money? Are we giving the American public the best return on investment for that money? And we owe it to ourselves to answer those questions before we ask Americans to dig down in their pockets and pay even more gas tax.

GWEN IFILL: Given what we have learned about the state of the nation’s infrastructure in this spectacular way and also in all the other ways that have been exposed in the last few weeks, is there time to have this debate about spending before the problem is tackled head on?

MARY PETERS: We must have this debate on spending before this problem is tackled head on. Again, we don’t know what happened in Minneapolis. We will find out what happened. I’ve talked to the NTSB investigators. I’ve been there three times myself, and the president has been there once.

Again, we don’t yet know, but I think it is a mistake to extrapolate that tragedy into the larger system crumbling beneath our feet. The fact is that, actually, the condition of the nation’s infrastructure has increased slightly over the last decade. What has suffered the most is actually how the infrastructure is performing. This congestion, delays, bottlenecks that we’re seeing on too much of the system today tells me that we’re not putting the money in the right places.

Funding Congressional earmarks

GWEN IFILL: Where is the money going instead?

MARY PETERS: Well, it's going into earmarks; it's going into special programs.

GWEN IFILL: Explain what you mean when you say earmarks.

MARY PETERS: Well, an earmark is a project that's designated by a member of Congress specifically to a project generally in his or her district or state. And the level of earmarking has increased substantially over the last couple of decades in terms of the highway bill. The last highway bill that was passed, in the summer of 2005, contained over 6,000 of those marks, those specially designated projects. And the cost of those projects just in that bill alone was $24 billion, almost a tenth of the bill.

GWEN IFILL: Aren't many of those projects, even though they're special interest projects, aren't they roads and bridges, often?

MARY PETERS: Gwen, some of them are, but many of them are not. There are museums that are being built with that money, bike paths, trails, repairing lighthouses. Those are some of the kind of things that that money is being spent on, as opposed to our infrastructure.

GWEN IFILL: You pointed out a few moments ago that we don't know yet what happened in Minneapolis.


GWEN IFILL: You put out a statement earlier this week, however, warning about the weight of construction projects on some of these bridges. Why did you do that?

MARY PETERS: Out of an abundance of caution, Gwen. In talking to the investigators that are on site today -- again, we don't have a conclusive answer yet, but we know one thing that was different about that bridge is that there was a construction project ongoing and there was a lot of construction equipment and construction materials stockpiled on the bridge.

So out of an abundance of caution, I issued an advisory to remind states and local governments that, when they're doing construction projects on bridges, they should compute the load factor and make sure that they're not putting too much weight on any one portion of the bridge.

GWEN IFILL: There has also been some reports that there may have been some steel gussets on the bridge which weakened and may have contributed to the collapse. Are you also -- do you also have people on higher alert for that sort of construction flaw?

MARY PETERS: Well, what I did ask, Gwen, was that everyone who had a bridge like this particular bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis go back and re-inspect those bridges and make sure that their inspection reports are current and also that their load factors are current for those bridges.

GWEN IFILL: As you undertake this task, which is a big one the president has put on your plate here, and as you try to decide between what the correct spending is and what the correct investment is, how do you begin to prioritize risk?

MARY PETERS: Well, risk is certainly something that we have to look at. And I think the way we prioritize risk is to make sure that we're taking every cautionary step we can to ensure that our nation's infrastructure is safe and is serving the American people well. And I believe that we are making every effort to do that.

And it's a caution that I would say is, let's don't read too much into what happened there before we know, because we could go off and try to fix the wrong problem instead of fixing what actually happened. And it is an absolute tragedy -- make no mistake -- it's a tragedy.

Confidence in government spending

GWEN IFILL: I was curious about something you said in an interview recently, in which you said a lot of Americans no longer trust, essentially -- and tell me if I'm misphrasing you -- that their money will be spent correctly, they no longer have that confidence. Is that what drives your thinking about whether spending should be the first priority here rather than investment?

MARY PETERS: Well, I think it's a very good point. You know, I have said that I think the reason the gas tax hasn't been increased since 1993 is because there is a lack of investor confidence.

The public isn't at all confident when they go to that gas pump and pay that 18.4-cent federal gas tax that that is actually going to improve the systems. I mean, much was said about the so-called "bridge to nowhere" in the last transportation act and how some $200-odd million dollars were going to Alaska to build a bridge there, and yet Americans are sitting stuck in traffic in many cases. They're not seeing the improvements that they believe need to be made in their neighborhoods, and especially in some of the high-growth areas of the United States.

So I think people are reluctant to spend more money unless they know that money is going to actually make an improvement in the transportation infrastructure.

GWEN IFILL: Who is spending the money inappropriately?

MARY PETERS: Well, there's about probably some 10 percent to 20 percent of the current spending that is going to projects that really are not transportation, directly transportation-related. Some of that money is being spent on things, as I said earlier, like bike paths or trails. Some is being spent on museums, on restoring lighthouses, as I indicated.

GWEN IFILL: Congress, essentially, you're saying is spending...

MARY PETERS: Yes, ma'am.

GWEN IFILL: OK, I'm just trying to figure out when you said who is spending the money. So one of the other things that you just alluded to is this whole question of gridlock and congestion and all these other transportation needs, which the states -- you announced this week a new plan for several cities, including New York City, where you would give them sort of gridlock relief, as it were. Describe that.

MARY PETERS: And what the project is, it's called our urban partnerships. And we held a competition. We asked for people to submit proposals from various areas throughout the United States to tell us how they would pursue innovative ways using pricing and other mechanisms to help resolve congestion issues in their areas.

And I was so pleased. We got 26 proposals from around the nation. We selected nine of those to be preliminary urban partners and had much more in-depth discussions with each of those areas, and then just yesterday announced the five urban partnerships that we've awarded. What we took...

GWEN IFILL: New York, Minneapolis, Seattle.

MARY PETERS: Yes, San Francisco, and -- let's see -- Miami, Florida. They were the five cities. And each of them, their proposal is a little bit different. What New York City proposed is called a congestion pricing scheme...

GWEN IFILL: Which you did not provide funding for, did you?

MARY PETERS: No, we did. We actually did provide $354 million to New York City.

Relieving congestion in New York

GWEN IFILL: No, but I mean -- I guess I mean is for the part that they asked for where they would essentially charge commuters coming into Manhattan eight dollars a head. Did you approve that part of it?

MARY PETERS: What we approved was the project that they would pursue, congestion relief, pricing techniques to pursue congestion relief in New York City and that they would achieve the results that they had proposed in their initial proposal to us.

You may be aware that the state legislature created a committee that is tasked with looking at various ways to relieve congestion in the city. What we have said is, you have to meet the result. You have to use congestion pricing. You have to meet the result, in terms of a substantial decrease in the congestion in your city, but we're not specific in terms of how they do that.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that's a good idea, or is it a tax on commuters?

MARY PETERS: I think it's a great idea, Gwen. Commuters today are paying. They're paying with their time. They're paying with their productivity. They're sitting stuck in traffic in New York City and other cities in the United States today. So they're paying.

And if this commuter process, this congestion process gives them the ability to get out of being stuck in traffic, to make the air cleaner, to use less fuel, to create a better environment in their city, I think it's a great idea.

GWEN IFILL: Is the distinction between this and a gas tax, say, a distinction between a mandatory tax and an optional tax?

MARY PETERS: Well, somewhat that is the case, certainly, because people can choose to go into an area where there's congestion pricing or not. But I think the real user fee benefit of this is people are paying where they're using the system and they're seeing direct benefits from where they're using the system.

And that's where I think the real win for the American public is. When you or I pay our gas taxes today, we don't really know where that money is going to go or whether or not it's going to benefit us right directly in our community or not.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Peters, secretary of transportation, thank you very much for joining us.

MARY PETERS: Gwen, thank you.