Secretary Peters blames congressional misuse of funds for problems with infrastructure.
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: 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.
The complete transcipt of the interview can be found here: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/transportation/july-dec07/infrastructure_08-15.html
Politically, I lean Libertarian. When discussing issues, I will slam Dems and/or Republicans.