‘...We are absolutely failing ... in how the system is performing’

After a Minneapolis bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, killing 13 people, members of Congress have sought to increase the gas tax to fix “structurally deficient” bridges and make other infrastructure repairs. But as Transportation Secretary Mary Peters explained to The Hill recently, the administration remains opposed to a tax hike. Congress, Peters said, should first do a better job of ensuring the money it spends goes to projects that would do the most good. Peters also expressed her “disappointment” with opposition to her department’s plan to update the air traffic control system, and why the White House intends to move forward with a program that lets Mexican trucks operate in the United States.

Q: Do you have any better idea of what happened in Minneapolis? What caused the bridge to collapse?

A:We don’t know yet. … The working theory right now is a gusset plate that was possibly undersized and the disproportionate weighting on the bridge of the construction materials and equipment. But let me let NTSB [the National Transportation Safety Board] speak to that, because they are the authority.

Q: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, groups that don’t normally agree with tax increases, support a national gas tax increase to pay for infrastructure improvements.

A:Let’s distinguish between physical condition and operational performance. Physical condition is actually better — marginally better, but better. We have fewer structurally deficient bridges today. We have less pavement that isn’t meeting the rideability quality we want, especially on our major thoroughfares.  …

But since 1993, we have virtually doubled, increased by 100 percent, the amount of money that we are spending on surface transportation infrastructure. … Where we are absolutely failing is how the system is performing. If you measure that, as we do, by the congestion on the system, we have seen a 300 percent increase just since 1993. Guess what 1993 was also? It was the last time the gas tax was increased. …

Instead of increasing dependence on the gas tax, let’s say, “Where are we spending the money? Are we spending the people’s money that we have access [to] today in the right places?” If not, let’s fix that first.

Q: Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) has a bill to deal with the structurally deficient bridge problem. It sunsets, it prohibits earmarks, it does have a gas tax increase — but what is wrong with it? If you are going to sunset it and prohibit earmarks, what’s wrong with that approach?

A:Why single out bridges? Because we really should look at the system as a whole. And, again, if we concentrate on spending the money that we are collecting today, we probably don’t need to go ask the public to pay another nickel in gas tax.

The other problem is states like Florida, like Arizona, like Texas I believe as well, that have less than 1 percent of deficient bridges, residents of those states would all pay this additional five cents, but it would go to states that have a higher percentage of deficient bridges. These states have all had the same opportunity to take care of their bridges over time. Why is it that some now would be rewarded for not taking care of their bridges with the money they had?

Q: Were you disappointed in the general aviation lobby, and the pushback that your plan to update the air traffic control system received?

A:Very disappointed. I can understand that they don’t want to convert to a system where they are going to be billed on [a] per takeoff and landing [basis]. And we are very sympathetic with the fact that we can add those fees to fuel charges instead, because I do understand what they are saying. There would be a pretty onerous system to operate where we’d have to direct-bill every GA [general aviation] pilot.

But we do think that they need to step up and pay more of an approximation of their use of their system. This is only at controlled airspace. They can still land at Leesburg and places like that that don’t come into controlled airspace and will not be charged these fees at all. But if that corporate jet is landing in LaGuardia at a peak period, they can and should pay an approximation of the total cost.

Q: Given the protectionist sentiment in the country reflected in both trade issues and the immigration debate, do you see any chance that Mexican trucks will be allowed over the border even in a pilot program?

A:They are operating the pilot now today. We began that even though both appropriations bills in the House and the Senate have provisions that would take funding away from that. …

Here’s the issue: This is a 1994 provision that was authorized by the Clinton administration under NAFTA. We are in violation of the NAFTA treaty as it exists today. And we have proposed, instead of opening the border to Mexican trucks, like we have done in Canada, we’ve proposed a very reasonable one-year demonstration program that will allow a limited number of Mexican companies and Mexican trucks to come across, meeting every — every — single requirement that U.S. trucks, U.S. drivers, and U.S. firms have to meet. Further, we are inspecting these Mexican trucks much more than we are U.S. trucks that are operating on our system today.