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Ray LaHood, Mary Peters, Rodney Slater and James Burnley - who headed the Department of Transportation under Presidents Obama, (George W.) Bush, Clinton and Reagan, respectively - each brought their own unique vision and priorities to the agency. During an event in which all four shared the stage at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Monday, it was clear that they still have slightly different views on certain policies concerning our nation’s infrastructure and transportation systems.
However, they all emphatically agree on two important points: One, that America’s infrastructure challenges aren’t getting the attention and resources they need from Washington. And two, that it’s absolutely imperative that our country’s next president takes serious, lasting steps to improve our transportation networks and strengthen our nation’s critical infrastructure.
Here’s what all four former secretaries -- who between them spent nearly 12 years leading the Department of Transportation -- had to say about our current challenges and the opportunities for improvement during a Kickoff Event for Infrastructure Week 2016:
Mary Peters, DOT Secretary under the Bush administration from October 2006 to January 2009
On the urgent need to repair our crumbling infrastructure: “What I have noticed since I left office is how much America has declined in terms of the state of our infrastructure and our ability to compete. According to the World Economic Forum, we’re now in 16th place in terms of the quality of our infrastructure. As recently as 2005, we were in the top five, so we have seen a significant decline just in that time, and a lot of it is related, as we’ve talked about, has to do with the declining revenues we have to fund transportation.”
On what needs to happen now to revive our ailing infrastructure: “We have to focus on the economic impact and contribution that transportation makes to the United States. We simply cannot compete in a global marketplace from 16th place. … There is a federal need to invest in transportation, and I think we need to concentrate more on that and drive home for the voters what they would get if we increase federal infrastructure and transportation spending.”
On her advice for the next Transportation Secretary: “Define very clearly what the federal role is in surface transportation, aviation and maritime… that is, very clearly define what the federal role is and what the federal interests are, and then find revenue sources from a variety of the things that we have talked about that would meet those needs. That would be my first priority.”
James Burnley, DOT Secretary under the Reagan administration from December 1987 to January 1989
On the impact of failing roads and bridges on the economy: Let’s talk about the trucking industry and what all this means for them. The American Transportation Research Institute estimates that we will see a 60 percent increase over the next 30 years in miles traveled, and they say that congestion is costing the trucking industry $50 billion a year, and that number is increasing. And that plays out through the rest of our economy. It’s not just trucking. As that number grows, it becomes an ever increasing drag on productivity and economic growth. So, we have a great deal at stake in figuring this out.
On what needs to happen now: “My plea to you today is to get out the proverbial clean sheet of paper, let’s take all the old ideas, many of which are still good ideas, let’s think about whether there are some new ideas, and let’s see whether in this five-year window we can get ahead of the curve.”
On his advice for the next Transportation Secretary: “During the transition, I hope the president-elect’s team will help him or her flesh out the vision for the federal role in infrastructure, and make it for the first time in my lifetime a presidential-level priority. It needs to be treated with that kind of urgency and respect as a set of issues. … Without that, I’m very fearful that with all the other demands on federal resources that we’ll be having this same conversation four or five years from now.”
Ray LaHood, DOT Secretary under the Obama administration from January 2009 to July 2013
On the need for increased transportation funding: “The bottom line is this: You have 50- and 60- and 70-year old transit systems all over American that need new cars and new infrastructure. You have Amtrak, which needs an enormous amount of money just for the Northeast Corridor. You have 57,000 structurally deficient bridges – not the least of which is the one that leads to Arlington Cemetery – that are about ready to fall down. If we really are serious about getting back to No. 1 and fixing these very, very serious infrastructure problems, we need a big pot of money...
“Whether it’s Chicago or Philly or D.C. or San Francisco, these cities need help. They need to resources to fix their transit systems. We’re going to be deficient in our leadership if we don’t speak up for the idea for a big pot of money or some kind of stimulus opportunity to get us rolling again.”
On the importance of partnering with states and cities: “I think we established credibility with the $48 billion that came to us as part of the  economic stimulus bill, thanks to our relationships with governors and mayors. … That money was spent correctly because of our partnerships and because the states had projects - roads, bridges, airports - that needed to be funded. So I think there is some credibility now that [DOT officials] almost always get it right, not because they’re the experts, but because their partners out in the states and the cities are the experts.”
On his advice for the next Transportation Secretary: “Take a page out of the book of [U.S. Chamber President] Tom Donohue and [AFL-CIO President] Rich Trumpka: Come into the White House, work with Congress, raise a big pot of money, and get American back to being number 1 again.”
Rodney Slater, DOT Secretary under the Clinton administration from February 1997 to January 2001
On the need for federal leadership and coordination: “It’s true that innovation and engagement occur at that state and local level, but we need a system that’s connective, and we need a system that’s not only connected domestically but because we service markets and attempt to get to destinations around the world, we need a system that connects us with the global supply chain system and global transportation system. That’s why we really need vision at the national level.”
On his advice for the next Transportation Secretary: “I would argue that [the next DOT Chief] should continue to define transportation in a broad context. It’s about more than concrete, asphalt and steel. It ties us to everything that adds value to our lives, and once you start talking about it in that manner, then you can start making the investment case.
“I think we should also build on the wonderful work of this administration. You took the stimulus package, you used it well, and you got us a multi-year (transportation funding) bill. We have five years now, but we can’t wait five years to start working on the next measure. We need to hit the ground running on day one. I think that if the next administration, with the help of organizations like those at this gathering, can be a part of that kind of effort, then we can truly get back to being number 1 across the transportation spectrum.”
It’s not just former transportation secretaries who are rallying together to address this increasingly important issue -- it brought together the U.S. Chamber’s Donohue and AFL-CIO’s Trumpka, as well. To hear what they had to say at the Kickoff event, check out our earlier coverage on Above the Fold.
For more information about Infrastructure Week 2016, head to the homepage.