Thursday, December 29, 2016

From the Archives: Former U.S. Transportation Sec’y Mary Peters: ‘not convinced’ on high-speed rail

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on March 4, 2011. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Former U.S. Transportation Sec’y Mary Peters: ‘not convinced’ on high-speed rail

On the morning of Friday, March 4, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Governor Rick Scott (R) has the authority to cancel a high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando and return.

The seven Florida justices unanimously rejected a lawsuit filed by state legislators challenging Scott’s decision to return approximately $2.4 billion to the federal government that had earlier been earmarked by the Obama administration for the Tampa-Orlando rail line.

No more ‘business as usual’

Hours after the Florida announcement, the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner met with former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and asked her about high-speed rail and what U.S. transportation priorities should be.

The government cannot “continue business as usual,” said Peters, who served as Transportation Secretary from 2006 to 2009, and previously was head of the Federal Highway Administration. “We need to look at a new paradigm of how we fund, how we operate, how we make project decisions. In the future, that has to be based on cost effectiveness.”

The government has to spend the taxpayers’ money, she said, in a way “that gives them the best possible return. We simply have not been doing that.”

Is high-speed rail cost-effective?

When asked specifically about high-speed rail – a prestige priority of President Obama and current Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – Peters repeated her emphasis on cost-effectiveness.

“I need to be given the proof that it is indeed cost effective,” she declared.

“We have finite resources right now,” Peters explained, “not just in transportation but in the U.S. budget overall. So every dime we spend, we have to consider, is there a higher, better use of this funding that will give Americans a better return?” Can it, for instance, “reduce the deficit [or] reduce our debt?” she asked.

“I am not convinced that high speed rail is cost effective,” she said.

Leveraging federal dollars

Peters’ top priority for federal transportation policy is to “fully fund TIFIA” – the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which, she explained, “can make loans to projects that can attract private investment and help leverage the federal dollar.”

That idea, she added, “segues into the second” priority: Federal transportation policy, she argued, “should give precedence, if you will, to those projects that can take a dollar of federal money and leverage it, perhaps with a dollar of state money and two dollars of private money, to give us more transportation solutions for the same investment.”

Finally, she made the case for consolidation of federal grantmaking programs in the transportation field.

“I would get rid of all these categories,” Peters said. “We have 108 different categories of funding right now” and they should be replaced with block grants to the states, which could make their own decisions on what to spend on transportation projects based on local conditions and circumstances.

The block grants, she said, would not give the states carte blanche, but rather would be aimed at letting them “meet the highest priorities” and would come attached with “measurements” requiring the states to “take care of their Interstate systems at this level” and “maintain their transit systems to a certain level, as well.

In her view, Peters concluded, “I would just block-grant the programs to the states [as] a step toward devolution.”

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