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Bush Taps Former Highway Official to Be Transportation Secretary

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

President Bush nominated a former federal highway administrator and longtime transportation policy official yesterday to be the next secretary of transportation.

Bush, who announced the choice of Mary Peters in a ceremony at the White House, lauded his nominee's efforts to ease congestion as head of the Federal Highway Administration from 2001 through 2005.

"Mary Peters is the right person for the job," the president said. "Mary led efforts to improve safety and security, reduce traffic congestion, and modernize America's roads and bridges. . . . Mary has a reputation for character and common sense. She's an innovative thinker."

Peters, who is the national director for transportation policy and consulting at HDR Inc., an architectural, engineering and consulting firm based in Omaha, said the country's transportation systems are "showing signs of aging."

"We are experiencing increasing congestion on our nation's highways, railways, airports and seaports," Peters said at the White House ceremony. "And we're robbing our nation of productivity and our citizens of quality time with their families."

If confirmed by the Senate, Peters will oversee a 60,000-person department that regulates and helps maintain the nation's transportation systems, many of which are facing serious challenges.

The nation's air traffic system is nearing capacity, and roadway congestion continues to be a top concern in many parts of the country.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Peters said the federal highway program could run out of money by the end of the decade. "You just can't depend on the federal government to bring the money in that was around when the interstate system was first built," she said.

As the nation's top highway official, Peters kept a fairly low profile but worked hard to better focus her agency on tracking spending and grants, former transportation officials said.

"The highway administration had been focused on just writing checks, so to speak," said Kenneth M. Mead, a former inspector general of the Transportation Department. "She emphasized oversight and stewardship of the money, which was a sea change. She made sure the money went where it was intended and accomplished what it was intended to do."

Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also praised Peters's tenure as head of the highway administration, saying she was "competent and very knowledgeable."

"She was a good manager," Oberstar said.

Peters, 57, is married and has three grown children. She was considering a run for Arizona's governorship last year but bowed out after questions were raised about her eligibility because she had lived in Virginia during Bush's first term. Before taking the federal highway post, she had served three years as Arizona's top transportation official.

Bush nominated Peters to replace Norman Y. Mineta, the lone Democrat in his Cabinet. Mineta was credited with helping create the Transportation Security Administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Administration officials said Peters worked closely with Mineta to craft a $268 billion highway bill that won passage last year. Although the legislation has been criticized for including thousands of pet projects for lawmakers, the Bush administration has said it will prove crucial in fixing the nation's highways and alleviating congestion.

Maria Cino, the department's No. 2 official, has been serving as acting secretary since Mineta stepped down in July.

Cino and Marion C. Blakey, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, were among the leading contenders to replace Mineta.

Rodney E. Slater, who was transportation secretary under President Bill Clinton, said Peters is a solid choice because she had served as a state highway official, giving her valuable experience in addressing local traffic woes. "That is something that will bode well for her," Slater said. "She is going to have good relations with other [transportation officials] outside of Washington. That is always a plus."

He noted that Peters will have to educate herself quickly on the challenges facing the aviation industry because most of her experience is in highways.

That did not give pause to James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents U.S. airlines. "We're very high on this choice," he said.

"She is a fine administrator and, I think, will bring the kinds of mental and policy skills to the job that few others who were in the running have," May added.

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