New transportation secretary could play important role in next year's user fee debate

May 9, 2006

New transportation secretary could play important role in next year's user fee debate

Mary Peters

President Bush on Tuesday afternoon nominated former Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters to be the secretary of transportation. If confirmed by the Senate, she'll replace Norman Mineta, who resigned in June.

"While I don't yet know her personally, Mary Peters has a reputation for honesty, integrity, and a willingness to listen and understand all sides of an issue," said AOPA President Phil Boyer.

"And as I've done with the eight previous secretaries of transportation that have been appointed since I've headed AOPA, I intend to be one of the first through the door to start her education on general aviation."

Not that she's totally inexperienced in aviation. Prior to heading the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) - a Department of Transportation agency, just like the FAA - Peters had risen up through the ranks to lead the Arizona Department of Transportation (DOT), which, in addition to highways, oversees aviation and 82 airports in the nation's sixth largest state.

The new secretary of transportation will be the president's point person in the FAA funding debate and the critical "go between" Congress, the White House, and the general public on the issue of user fees.

Her position on aviation user fees is far from clear.

While as FHWA chief she had advocated highway tolls (a kind of user fee) for upgrading and maintaining the nation's roads. "That's because the highway trust fund is going to go broke. The aviation trust fund isn't," said Boyer.

In fact, as a passionate motorcyclist, Peters understands that different transportation modes need to be treated differently, and some users taxed at a different rate than others, explained a Washington insider who has to remain unnamed while the nomination is pending.

She can also be hardnosed when it comes to spending the public's money. She is credited with making the FHWA more accountable for how it disperses highway funds, and she established an audit division at the Arizona DOT to tighten financial controls there.

"We look forward to collaborating with Mary Peters, particularly in this next year as we reestablish the funding mechanism for our aviation infrastructure and the FAA," said Boyer. "And rest assured in my first visit I'll come equipped with a picture of my Harley-Davidson Heritage Softtail and be prepared to share motorcycle stories."

"AOPA fully intends to take every opportunity to take advantage of her good listening skills reputation to explain why user fees would be harmful to the world's best aviation system."

Mary Peters served as FHWA administrator from October 2001 until her resignation in 2005. She spent three years as the director of the Arizona DOT, culminating a 16-year career there.

A fourth-generation, native Arizonan, Peters holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Phoenix and attended Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government Program for State and Local Government Executives. She and her husband, Terry, have three grown children.

September 5, 2006