Arizona Town Hall/Transportation

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Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters talks about recommendations from the 94th Arizona Town Hall on Transportation that recently took place in Tucson. Peters also shares her ideas for improving how Arizona finances and manages its public transportation resources.

Ted Simons: Last week the Arizona town hall met in Tucson to come up with solutions to the state's transportation problems. Producer Kimberly Craft has more.

Kimberly Craft: More than 100 of the state's elite policymakers gathered in Tucson. They hunkered down in panels to consider the challenges and opportunities and find solutions to the state's transportation problems.

James Charlier: We understand Arizonans have mixed feelings about public transit.

Kimberly Craft: James Charlier, a planner based in boulder, Colorado, delivered the luncheon speech, telling them what they already know. Arizona, more than other states is petroleum dependent for moving people and goods. The majority of the money we spend on fuel leaves the state. It even climate change at 120-degree summer temperatures won't stop people from coming here, our population will double by 2050, perhaps earlier. And the development patterns we've followed for the last 50 years simply won't work anymore.

James Charlier: Your low-density sprawled-out suburbs are losing value, and they're full of foreclosure signs. And that's not an aberration or a temporary thing. That's the future. So you have an enormous and kind of exciting opportunity to shape what happens over the next couple decades, if you choose to.

Kimberly Craft: Transit didn't even come up in the conversation two years ago, according to Melissa walker, who directs the governor's task force. She says transit presents the silver lining to thinking about innovative transportation schemes. She came to push her own agenda, establishing a secure corridor to move freight through five states from Mexico to Canada. She urged town hallers to push for more federal multiyear funding and to start thinking about planning the development of borders and corridors together as a cohesive supply chain process.

Melissa Walker: I've heard several people describe it as not necessarily selling things together. We make things together. And so it's important for people to be aware of that so they understand why we need to collaborate with our partners on both sides of the border to ensure we have a fluid transportation system and economic benefits that should come from something like that.

Kimberly Craft: Market forces will shape the Arizona landscape and stimulate a lot of creative thinking; with the potential to give long-timers and newcomers alternatives to so much driving, and more money in their pockets to pump into the state economy.

Ted Simons: Arizona town hall participants recommended raising the state's gas tax, which helps pay for building and repairing roads. The tax has stood at 18 cents per gallon since it was implemented in 1991. Here now to talk about that and other options for meeting Arizona's transportation needs is Mary Peters, former United States secretary of transportation. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Mary Peters: Ted, thank you.

Ted Simons: The 18 cents a gallon since 1991 for the gas tax. Not changed. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Mary Peters: I think it's -- let's put it in context. It may be a bad thing in that it's not bringing in as much revenue. But I think continuing to depend on the gas tax whether its 18 cents on a state level or 18.4 on a federal level, is really relying on a mechanism whose time I believe has come and gone. Often the gas tax is running out of gas. Americans are driving less, using less fuel, and our vehicles are going to be significantly more fuel efficient in the future. So really it is an opportunity to look for an alternative way or ways of funding transportation.

Ted Simons: And I want to talk about some of the ideas you have in mind, specifically. But back to the gas tax idea, indexing the tax to inflation; is that a way to perhaps bridge between what is now and what you would like to see?

Mary Peters: It may well be. I found that many people in elected positions are reluctant to do so. I've said in the past if the public had been clamoring for a gas tax increase, it would have happened before now. What I believe is true is that the public has lost faith in how those mechanisms are allocated, so they're not willing to support increasing or indexing the gas tax until they see that we're going to do a more responsible way of allocating revenues.

Ted Simons: It sounds like indexed for today's monies, you're talking 28 cents a gallon instead of 18, possibly. Is that what lawmakers would shy away from?

Mary Peters: I think they would. We saw an example recently in Idaho; state governor had proposed a 10 cent a gallon gas tax increase, right in the neighborhood of what you're talking. The legislature only moved a two-cent increase and that was voted down. They couldn't even get that through.

Ted Simons: OK. Let's talk about your ideas regarding a different way to finance highways, roadways here in Arizona. Let's start with here in Arizona. Toll roads, pay to play, you like those ideas.

Mary Peters: I do. I think that there are ways to bring more revenue to bear to meet our transportation needs without relying on what is an unsustainable, unreliable method of funding, which is that gas tax. Part of that could be tolling or paying a per mile cost; we sometimes call it a vehicle miles tax, vehicle miles traveled tax or something like that. That would give us the opportunity I believe to use price signals to determine where and how we invest instead of relying on the most powerful political player to allocate those revenues to projects that they want billed. It happens too often on the federal level.

Ted Simons: Direct user fees sounds like double taxation.

Mary Peters: I don't think it is if we get away with the gas tax or basically take the gas tax down at the same time we're bringing these other mechanisms into play. I think it wouldn't be double taxation at all. But let me also say that people are paying today, they're paying not only that gas tax, but they're also paying with their time, with their patience, with their lack of productivity because in too many cases we've just got choking congestion in areas where we need to build more, but the revenues aren't necessarily going to those places to build those roads.

Ted Simons: And yet I know there's another line of reasoning that says, anything that facilitates the building of more freeway enhances the idea of keeping the car culture alive is irresponsible, seeing as how the car culture -- these folks would say is a dying culture and we need new ways of getting folks around.

Mary Peters: I believe that we need to have multimodal solutions. I'm very, very pleased as I come back to Arizona now that we have the transit system here in the Phoenix area, and also in Tucson, and much better transit applications than we've had in the past. What that gets to, Ted, is we should pay for whatever mode of transportation best meets our needs. And so if driving on a highway best meets or needs, we should have the freedom to do that, but we should have alternatives. If we send the right price signals, whether we're taking a transit system, whether we're driving our own car, by ourselves or in a carpool or something like that, if we use price signals, we would have those options and those abilities to choose which mode we use.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about some of these modes as far as toll roads are concerned and user fees and the technology that would be involved. How would it work?

Mary Peters: This is -- people think this is throwing quarters in a basket, like we used to do in Chicago on toll roads. Overhead gantries can read at full highway speed a transponder affixed to a vehicle. And basically take the money out of an account that's been set up for the fee that you're paying to use that section of roadway. But here's what is important. Not only can you pay that electronically and not have to stop at tollbooths and the congestion associate the with that, but those price signals can be used to manage the traffic on the road so you're virtually guaranteed a full freeway speed ride from the time you get on until the time you get off.

Ted Simons: You say you're guaranteed, but how would that work? How would you make it fair for folks who may not have the income to afford that -- are you pricing the poll or the fast lane?

Mary Peters: I don't think so. Today with the gas tax, we don't have the discretion to take a lower income family and say, OK, when you pump gas into your car you're going pay a lower fee than you or I perhaps to say that. With the transponder you can do that. Let's say a low-income person would want to subsidize transportation, maybe public transportation doesn't meet their needs, working on a construction job maybe where they have to be there at 5:00 a.m. Let's debt money to their account, or give them a credit so they don't pay as much per mile. You can do that with this technology that we have today, but you can't do that with a gas tax. And the gas tax truly is regressive. It has a much higher proportion of spendable income on low-income families than it does on higher income families.

Ted Simons: Is there a concern, getting more of the private sector involved in transportation, that the private sector by its nature wants to make money, and may very well cherry pick ideas and roadways and projects that would benefit them the most, but may not benefit society or the community the best?

Mary Peters: I think if we're talking about attracting private sector revenue, and I think there's a tremendous opportunity to do that, we do have to make sure we're protecting public interests. That people aren't required to use the road, where there are no alternatives, that they're being priced out of being able to use that roadway. But all of those things can be dealt with in the context of the state or the local government owners negotiating those contracts with the private sector to make sure public interest is preserved. And we can also I think help acclimate people to this type of pricing by using maybe a hot lane concept, instead much H.O.V. lanes.

Ted Simons: That idea: The transponder ideas, the toll road, all of these things, are they in place right now and how are they working?

Mary Peters: They are. They're in place several places. Probably the longest running priced lane demonstration that we have in the United States is on state route 91 in Southern California; roughly runs from riverside county into Orange County very heavily commuter corridor. And there are priced lanes; these express priced lanes are adjacent to the so-called free lanes or general purpose lanes where people aren't paying a fee to use them. Here's what's important. Those price lanes get 40% greater throughput than do the adjoining general purpose lanes. And the way they do that is they raise or lower the price depending on the amount of traffic so they can keep that free flowing. It's happening also in Minneapolis, in Miami, in Texas. There are numerous examples today.

Ted Simons: Last question, it's happening there, is it viable? Are Arizonans ready? Arizonans don't want to see cameras; they don't want a big brother looking down on them any way, shape, or form. Now you've got cameras and toll roads -- are we ready?

Mary Peters: We probably need to get ready. We still think toll is a four-letter word. I think we have to get acclimated. It's not so much how you pay, what you pay, but how you pay. If we can find a way for people to pay for transportation but give them a much better return on investment, get them out of this choking congestion, I think people will warm up to that. And the hot lanes I think are the best way to start that.

Ted Simons: Very good. Thank you so much for joining us on "Horizon."

Mary Peters: Thank you, Ted.

Mary Peters:Former U.S. Secretary of Transporation;

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