Magnolia Marketplace just wrapped up about a 20-minute phone conversation with MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown.
Brown told us a combination of things led him Monday night to offer some critical words about U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who Brown said was scheduled to appear at the AASHTO Board of Directors Dinner before canceling. Two different deputies under LaHood’s supervision were subsequently scheduled to appear before both canceling.
Brown was frustrated with that, and has long been frustrated with LaHood’s push for high-speed rail and mass transit programs that are virtually useless in rural states, and with the fact that there still hasn’t been a highway reauthorization bill, which is the funding source for every state’s department of transportation, cleared by Congress. Here is Brown’s side of what happened Monday night.
“I was probably a little strong on the secretary,” said Brown, who would not tell Magnolia Marketplace exactly what he said. “The secretary, on many occasions, has not appeared at AASHTO events. AASHTO is known nationally and internationally as the voice of transportation. Mr. LaHood has said on many occasions that our system of highway transportation is built out. His emphasis has been on high-speed rail and mass transit programs. Our system is not built out. Our position nationally, and certainly here in Mississippi, is that we need more highways. We need more capacity. Truck traffic, for example, is expected to double by the year 2025. That’s right around the bend.
“It’s clear to us that we need more capacity, and that the system isn’t built out,” Brown continued. “I’ve differed with the secretary throughout my year as president of AASHTO. I chose hard words when I made my comments last Monday night.
“That being said, Monday morning, my chairman and one of my best friends in the world named Bill Minor died. I was there with him. I was the first man to him after I was alerted to go to his room. I was there when the paramedics arrived. Bill Minor was a good friend, and I’ve never watched someone die before. So I had that on my mind.
“I’d also been notified that my cancer is back for the third time – the third time — and I had to get immediately to M.D. Anderson (cancer center in Houston, Texas) as soon as they could take me. And, I was somewhat angered and frustrated because the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary had canceled. His deputy was supposed to come, he canceled. And a third-level person was supposed to come, and he canceled. So I was a little annoyed that we didn’t have representation from the organization that we work with on a daily basis, and I said so.
“Butch Brown is from the river town of Natchez, Miss. I’m a very outspoken person. I’m too old to change, I’m going on 68. I lost a good friend. I was annoyed that the secretary and his staff had canceled, and I was fearful of what’s lying ahead for me. I opened my mouth and I said things in a very undiplomatic way. I could have been diplomatic and had no consequences and no letter from Victor Mendez. Victor Mendez is my friend.
“I think my friend Victor Mendez felt like he could chastise me and say what he wanted to say. I’ve been critical of his boss before, and Victor and I have talked about it. I think perhaps the setting (Monday night) made him uncomfortable. I think he perhaps felt like he had to say something. We’ve talked and emailed and had conversations and apologies since. I agree with him. I told him I agreed it was distasteful.
“It was a group of words that were very critical of a man (LaHood) who doesn’t share the vision of me and most of my colleagues. I’m not mad at Ray LaHood. I’m disappointed with the fact that we don’t have the money to plan our program adequately and I disagree with his philosophy on the use of that money when we get it. It’s water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. I hope it is with Victor and Ray.”
While Magnolia Marketplace was on the phone with Brown, a spokesperson for Mendez said in a voicemail that the Federal Highway Administrator would not comment on the letter.
“We really don’t have anything to say,” said Cathy St. Denis. “The letter is what it is.”