Many observers expect President Bush's nominee to lead the Dept. of Transportation, Mary E. Peters, to win Senate confirmation. If the predictions prove correct, the former head of the Federal Highway Administration will have to get up to speed on hot transportation topics beyond roads and bridges. Perhaps the toughest legislative item on DOT's 2007 agenda will be reauthorizing Federal Aviation Administration airport grants and other programs. The key problem will be striking a deal on financing the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.
Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors' highway and transportation division, says, "I don't foresee any problem with her getting confirmed." First she faces a Senate commerce committee hearing Sept. 20. If all goes smoothly, the panel and the full Senate could approve Peters before Congress recesses in early October.
If Peters is confirmed, "One of the immediate issues that she will be faced with is the administration proposal for dealing with financing the aviation trust fund," says Todd Hauptli, Airport Legislative Alliance senior vice president. He says it's likely to be issued in February, with Bush's next federal budget request.
Hauptli says next year's aviation bill discussions "will in many respects be like many of the debates in the past�a good, old-fashioned food fight." Big airlines will tussle with users of corporate jets and other private planes over who will pay more to help the trust fund, whose uncommitted balance dropped from $7.3 billion in 2001 to an estimated $1.7 billion this year. "I suspect the secretary will be in the middle of that debate," he says.
Peters has some aviation background. Before coming to FHWA in 2001, she headed the Arizona DOT, which oversees Phoenix Sky Harbor and other airports. She's versed in transportation finance. At FHWA, Peters worked on the SAFETEA-LU highway and transit bill, enacted last year, and advocated innovative highway funding. Since November, she has been an HDR senior vice president and is vice-chair of a congressionally mandated commission studying highway and transit policy and finance.
Norman Y. Mineta who stepped down in July after more than five years as DOT chief, had supported Deputy Secretary Maria Cino as his successor. But Mineta, now vice chairman of consulting firm Hill & Knowlton, says he knew Bush had interviewed Peters, as well as Cino and FAA chief Marion Blakey, for the secretary's job. As recently as the week before Bush's announcement, Mineta says he told White House officials he was supporting Cino. But he added, "You could not go wrong with Mary Peters as well. You had three strong candidates."