Streetsblog Q&A: Bush DOT Chief Endorses National Transport Goals

Mary Peters, who spent four years as George W. Bush's Federal Highway Administrator before taking over the U.S. DOT in 2006, has entered the simmering debate over whether Washington should set performance goals for the nation's transportation system. Her answer: "Absolutely."

4591.jpgFormer Transportation Secretary Mary Peters (Photo: IU)
Peters, who is now working as a private consultant in her home state of Arizona, endorsed the concept of national transportation goals in a wide-ranging interview yesterday with Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Peters' call for federal leadership on performance standards was far from an endorsement of Congress' leading proposal on the issue, which would require states to focus on lowering carbon emissions and increasing transit usage, among other goals. 

But at a time when other infrastructure players are unconvinced that Washington should set the bar at all for state DOTs -- warning that goals could become "diktats" -- and when many conservatives would prefer to withdraw from the system entirely, the former Transportation Secretary's support for a strong federal role was notable.

When asked what performance goals she would set, Peters cited more efficient freight movement and safety, two items that are included in the "national objectives" bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ).

Peters' tenure, despite being dominated by a highway-centric perspective, had some bright spots for transportation reform. Her Urban Partnership program offered the incentive money that first sparked New York City's push for congestion pricing, a cause that Peters continues to champion after leaving office.

"Whoever named them 'freeways' should be shot, because they're not free," Peters quipped. She directly answered critics who depicted variable road tolling as an elitist tool and predicted that New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg "hasn't given up" on congestion pricing.

But a move towards national performance goals can't happen without a new long-term transportation bill -- which Peters agrees should wait until infrastructure can command more of Congress' attention.

"The leadership in the House and Senate is not engaged on this issue," Peters said, favorably commenting on the Obama administration's proposed 18-month extension of existing transport law. "It's better to have a longer-term extension, but during that period, to talk about the things I'm advocating."

What exactly is Peters advocating? More details on what brought her back to the capital are coming up later today.