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Conference Keynote: Federal Impact on Ariz.

Former Arizona and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and AZBEX Editor Roland Murphy discussing transportation and infrastructure at the AZBEX Public Works Conference. Credit: Annalise Lullo/AZBEX

By Rebekah Morris and Tasha Anderson for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

The keynote address of the 2017 AZBEX Public Works Conference featured an open interview between AZBEX Editor Roland Murphy and Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters. The conversational format was designed to give attendees a more personal account of a cabinet-level position, drawing out opinions and thoughts of the current state of affairs and how actions at the federal level impact us in Arizona.

Days are Long, but the Time is Short

Peters described her time as the head of the Department of Transportation as a whirlwind.  As the head of eleven administrative subdivisions and 58,000 employees, she focused on a very short list of high priorities and maintaining a consistent ‘line of sight,” so everyone in the organization could understand how their work each day moves the overall agency toward the end goal. When she attended President Trump’s $1T investment in infrastructure announcement in January, 2017, she described the situation as incredible. She also maintains a high level of respect for current Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

State Participation in Federal Transportation Committees

Currently no Arizona senators or House representatives sit on any federal transportation committees. When asked what impact that has on Arizona’s ability to influence transportation decisions, Peters described the impact as “less than it was in the past.” She went on to explain that since 2005 Congress has turned against earmarks entirely, and the earmark projects proposed and pushed through by transportation committee members was one of the primary benefits of sitting on those transportation committees.

How Do We Get There?

During the interview the question was posed as to what public organizations should focus on in order to maintain the upward pace that infrastructure investment has achieved since the aftermath of the Recession.

“Long term sustainable funding,” she replied. “That is the single most important factor because, as you heard from the speakers that been here so far, and the ones that will come after this session, we have to plan, develop and deliver those projects. It’s not something that just happens overnight, so you have to have the ability to count on funding out into the future so you can get through that development process. I would say that, to me, that’s the number one problem, making sure that we have a long term sustainable source of funding.”

Peters went on to add that the federal government has “too heavy a thumb on the scale” of the building process for transportation projects, which can increase the cost of a project by 20 percent over the same project completed with state or local funding.

“I do believe that there is a distinct and important federal role in transportation, but it should not be spread as far and wide as it is today in terms of those standards and restrictions on how and where to build. So, if we both had a long term sustainable source of funding, fewer federal restrictions and more state and local tie-in we could get a lot more done.”

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