Q. Did you seek to delay the new transportation reauthorization to buy time so you can find the money for these new programs?
A. That’s exactly why we did it. Everybody wants to spend $400 billion or $500 billion on a new bill. James Oberstar’s bill costs $450 billion. There’s just no way we’re going to find that money now. Eighteen months gives us the opportunity to help the economy get a little better so we can pass a very comprehensive bill.
Q: How do you see the bill benefiting older Americans?
A: A lot of our seniors want to live in smaller towns where they grew up, raised children and feel safe. So we’ve got to make sure there is affordable housing in those towns and that they have transportation to urbanized areas for when they need to go to the grocery store, or the hospital, or the drugstore. At DOT we can make sure we don’t pour everything into urban areas, but also look out for rural America.
Q. In an AARP poll of transit planners, two-thirds said they don’t specifically take the needs of older Americans into account for their work. Is somebody at DOT specifically tasked with making sure your plans address the needs of this growing segment of the population?
A. I have nine grandchildren; I think I know some of the concerns older people have. There’s also a sensitivity among our employees about the needs of seniors. And this is the first time in the history of a DOT authorization bill that we’re going to have a livability program in the legislation. That sends a pretty good message that this is not your grandfather’s—or your grandmother’s—DOT.
Q. Or maybe that it is your grandparents’ DOT.
A. Exactly. The priorities are a lot different than they were five years ago.
Q. Within the president’s Cabinet, you’re also a member of a smaller group called the “Green Cabinet.” What is that?
A. When we first got into these jobs, Carol Browner [the president’s assistant for energy and climate change] gathered six or seven Cabinet secretaries around a table, and now it’s turned into the Green Cabinet. It’s Cabinet members like Interior, Agriculture and EPA, who are working on green jobs, sustainability, livable communities, affordable housing.
We get lunch together once a month and find ways we can share resources. The DOT, for example, is working with the EPA on fuel standards for automobiles. By 2012, we’re going to get to 25 miles per gallon. By 2016 we’ll get to 36 mpg. This level of collaboration would have been unheard of in another administration.
Q. A lot of alternative transportation proponents were disappointed the economic stimulus program didn’t become a kind of Works Progress Administration for alternative transportation.
A. We got $48 billion, of which $16 billion was for transit and high-speed rail, and $28 billion was for roads and bridges—because we could get it out the door quickly. I know people have criticized there’s too much money going to highways, but it’s a very quick way to fix up deteriorated infrastructure and put people to work.
When I’ve been out visiting these job sites, a lot of the workers were on unemployment in January and February, and now they have a good-paying job. Many of these jobs will last 18 months, and by then hopefully we’ll have an authorization bill that will really enhance alternative transit and high-speed rail.
Q. Why is the president so interested in public transit and high-speed rail?
A. Because he came from Chicago, where they have trains above ground and underground, they have buses, they have light rail.
We can do high-speed rail across the country, whether it’s a train from Chicago to St. Louis that connects up to Wisconsin and Michigan or a train between Minnesota and Ohio. We’re probably looking at three decades before we have true high-speed rail in the country. It took three decades to get the interstate system built, too.
Q. Do you ever walk or bike to work?
A. I haven’t, really. I’m not allowed [for security reasons].