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Secretary of Transportation comments on SAFETEA

Secretary Mineta before the Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation, U.S. Senate - May 21, 2003.

From the U.S. Department of Transportation

Chairman McCain, Senator Hollings, and Members of the Committee, thank you very much for this opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the Bush AdministrationÕs proposal to reauthorize our surface transportation programs. Before I begin, IÕd like to introduce our National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Dr. Jeff Runge, and Acting Federal Motor Carrier Administrator Annette Sandberg, both of whom are here to assist me with any details of your questions.

Last week I sent to Congress the AdministrationÕs reauthorization proposal, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003, or "SAFETEA." This six-year, $247 billion proposal is the largest surface and public transportation commitment in American history. It builds on the successes of the landmark legislation, ISTEA, which I co-authored during my days on the other side of this microphone, and its successor, TEA-21.

Our reauthorization proposal serves as a true blueprint for investment in our future, supplying the funds and the framework for needed investments to maintain and grow our national transportation system, while protecting the environment for future generations of Americans.

In addition, our proposal places a central focus on transportation safety. Although we have made improvements in the rates of fatalities and injuries on our highways, the total numbers remain intolerable, and they are rising. In 2002, nearly 43,000 people lost their lives on our highways and roads. These are numbers that I simply will not accept. That is why I have challenged the dedicated men and women of the Department of Transportation to dramatically reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on our NationÕs highways, starting right now.

For the past year and a half, this Department, with the critical and timely help of this Committee, has dedicated itself to improving transportation security for Americans. Faced with the scourge of terrorism, our Department responded by creating unprecedented partnerships with the private sector, Congress, interest groups, and Federal, State, and local agencies. Together we succeeded in decreasing the dangers of terrorism through new and better technology, more personnel, improved laws, and increased education.

Mr. Chairman, we are going to do the same thing with car crashes. This year, we are going to take the same passion, call on similar partnerships, and build the same record of success through enforcement, education, and engineering. Nothing would make a greater difference in reducing injuries and fatalities than to increase the use of safety belts everywhere in America. If safety belt use were to increase from the present national average of 75 percent to 90 percent Š an achievable goal Š 4,000 lives would be saved each year. We have a moral, as well as an economic, obligation to immediately address the problem of transportation safety.

The total economic impact of all motor vehicle crashes exceeds $230 billion a year, a staggering figure. That is why the President and I have made saving lives an essential priority for the Department and for the reauthorization of TEA-21. Our bill would improve safety by creating a new core safety program, consolidating and simplifying the safety programs administered by NHTSA, and providing new incentive bonuses to reward States that achieve demonstrable safety results.

SAFETEA also increases funding for important commercial vehicle safety and enforcement programs, and strengthens safety auditing of new entrant motor carriers. Enactment of our proposal would be an important step in reducing highway fatalities and injuries, and providing greater flexibility to State and local governments.

Mr. Chairman, I also believe that enactment of SAFETEA would help strengthen stewardship of Federal resources. The American people, and the Congress, rightfully hold our Department accountable for ensuring that Federal funds are used in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Our proposal would help ensure that every dollar spent yields the maximum benefit, in terms of the number of lives saved, reduced congestion, and increased mobility.

SAFETEA would establish an oversight program for monitoring the effective and efficient use of title 23-authorized funds, with a specific focus on financial integrity and project delivery. Our NationÕs transportation system faces significant challenges in other areas as well, such as congestion, project delivery, freight movement and intermodal connectivity.

SAFETEA would create a safer, simpler, and smarter Federal surface transportation program by addressing transportation problems of national significance, while giving State and local transportation decision makers more flexibility to solve transportation problems in their communities. To accomplish all of these goals, SAFETEA calls for a record Federal investment in surface transportation, spending over $201 billion on highway and safety programs, and nearly $46 billion on public transportation programs, from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2009. I firmly believe that our proposal provides an excellent framework to tackle the surface transportation challenges that lie ahead.

SAFETEA will help ensure needed repairs to our roads and bridges. It will ensure that new transportation projects are completed on budget and on time. It ensures the continued growth of our NationÕs economy, without imposing costly new taxes. And, Mr. Chairman, I am proud to say that SAFETEA includes a strong program for protecting and preserving the environment. Our proposal funds our NationÕs transportation infrastructure needs in a fiscally responsible manner.

SAFETEA continues the funding guarantees of TEA-21 that linked highway funding with transportation excise tax receipts, and redirects the 2.5 cents per gallon of the General FundÕs gasohol tax to the Highway Trust Fund. SAFETEA also improves highway infrastructure performance and maintenance by dedicating an additional $1 billion a year of Highway Trust Fund dollars over and above each yearÕs estimated receipts into the Highway Trust Fund. Obviously, the total size of the program is and will continue to be a matter of debate. That debate should not, however, be permitted to cloud a meaningful and necessary discussion of the many programmatic reforms contained in SAFETEA. Moreover, any proposal that jettisons the important linkage between tax revenues and spending in an effort to achieve higher overall funding puts the landmark victory of guaranteed funding at risk.

My written statement, which has been submitted for the record, contains a much more detailed explanation of the programmatic reforms that are included in our SAFETEA proposal. I hope that you will give these proposals serious consideration as the committee moves to develop its version of this legislation.

I would like to conclude by stressing the fact that the Bush Administration is committed to securing approval of a multi-year reauthorization bill this year, and I look forward to working with Congress to achieve that very important goal. Again, thank you very much for having me here today, and I look forward to answering your questions.

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