Opening Plenary Session Address
U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater
Western Hemisphere Transportation Ministerial
New Orleans, Louisiana, December 15, 1998  


I am delighted to officially open this ministerial meeting on the future of transportation in the Western Hemisphere.

Our agenda is clear. As President Clinton emphasized in his letter of welcome, we must develop a strategic vision to integrate this region's transportation system for the 2 1 " century.

I would like to once again express my appreciation to the governments of the Americas represented here today. And I want to emphasize how grateful we are to the distinguished representatives of the private sector who have joined us. As we discuss such issues as trade, economic regulations and market-based economic policies, your counsel will be invaluable.

Let me also take a moment to acknowledge the stepped-up efforts taking place during this ministerial to aid our sister republics in Central America and the Caribbean devastated by the recent hurricanes.

As transportation ministers, we are acutely aware that restoring the roads, railroads and bridges are absolutely essential to speed post-disaster assistance and economic recovery.

Within the last hour we linked up via satellite with a White House conference on disaster relief to announce a new initiative to speed aid to the region. The governments represented here have signed a Memorandum of Consultation to help rebuild the transportation infrastructure shattered by the hurricanes.

By committing ourselves to working together in response to this calamity of biblical proportions, we are acknowledging that a new era of cooperation among the transportation ministries of this hemisphere is already underway.

Perhaps the most powerful force for unity is the emergence of a global economy in which domestic economic growth depends on the economic vitality of the nations with whom we trade. I know this is true for the United States. During the past five years, more than one quarter of U.S. economic growth has come from increased exports.

By the year 2010, the Western Hemisphere will be a larger market than Western Europe and the Pacific Rim combined.

That is why President Clinton has been so deeply concerned with the recent turmoil in hemispheric financial markets. Our own economic destiny is tightly linked to that of our hemispheric neighbors. Whether your neighbors endure hurricanes or economic storms, in any true community of nations, we are stronger standing together than standing alone.

This new era of cooperation did not begin this morning. Four years ago the democratic nations of the Americas met in an historic Summit of the Americas in Miami. There, in President Clinton's words, the nations of the Western Hemisphere "planted the seed of a new partnership based on a common vision of a democratic prosperous, peaceful, united hemisphere by the 2 Is' century."

The core of that vision was the commitment in Miami to create a free trade area of the Americas by 2005.

Achieving this grand vision of a free trade zone for this hemisphere will mean little if our transportation infrastructure cannot support the rapid increase in multilateral trade we anticipate.

Following the Miami Summit, transportation ministers began to develop a comprehensive Transportation Initiative to support a significant increase in regional trade as well as to promote safety and other objectives.

This Initiative represents the ideas and hard work of many leaders from many nations.

I would like to particularly acknowledge President Clinton's former White House Chief of Staff and Special Envoy for the Americas, "Mack" McLarty who moved this agenda forward during more than 40 trips to the region. Mack will be the keynote speaker at today's luncheon.

I would also like to thank my predecessor as U.S. Transportation Secretary, Fredrico Pe´┐Ża, who was a major force behind the Transportation Initiative.

Credit is also due Chilean Transport Minister Claudio Hohman, who hosted the 1996 meeting- of transport ministers that officially adopted the Initiative.

Working together, the transportation ministries of the hemisphere were successful in their efforts to have our transportation initiative included as an official item for the second Summit of the Americas, held in Santiago, Chile last April.

The heads of state who met in Santiago adopted significant portions of the Transportation Initiative as part of the Summit's Action Agenda. These leaders recognized that a thriving market of 800 million people requires significant improvements in our hemisphere's transportation infrastructure.

As President Clinton also emphasized in his letter of welcome, "An efficient, safe, and well-integrated transportation system is crucial to the Western Hemisphere's continued economic growth and prosperity. Your meeting will be an important follow-up to last April's Summit..."

The regional transportation goals established in Santiago require us to move much further-and much faster-down the road of integrated transportation systems than many of us would have imagined possible only a few years ago.

That is why our agenda here in New Orleans is so rigorous.

The first Minister's Roundtable, immediately following this Plenary, is designed to allow ministers to discuss their vision for integration of the hemisphere's transportation system.

This afternoon's panel sessions will explore ways to implement the transportation portions of the Santiago Summit Action Plan. The key points raised by each panel will be summarized and reported to the ministers for action.

If we are visionary and vigilant about working here in New Orleans, I am confident that we will be able to establish a firm foundation for a world-class transportation system in this hemisphere.

However, as we share ideas over the next three days, it will be important to remember the difference between predicting the future and creating a vision.

At the beginning of this century, one of North America's most celebrated astronomers-Simon Newcomb-strongly denied the possibility of powered flight.

As he put it,

"No possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a practical machine by which men shall fly long distances through the air."

That was a prediction.

But even as Newcomb put this prediction on paper, Wilber and Orville Wright were putting the finishing touches on -the Flyer that would prove Newcomb wrong at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The Wright Brothers had a vision.

And so do we. Our vision is of a seamless network of highways, rail lines, shipping routes and aviation corridors stretching from the Yukon to Tierra del Fuego. By supporting the growth of commerce and tourism throughout the Americas, this integrated network will bring new opportunities for the people of this hemisphere in the next century and the next millennium.

This Thursday, December 17th I will participate in ceremonies commemorating the first flight of the Wright Brothers plane. Ninety-five years after that first flight, orbiting satellites and a space station overhead remind us of the power of the Wright Brothers vision.

We continue to move from strength to strength. A century from now, our meeting in New Orleans could be remembered as the "Kitty Hawk" where integrated transportation for the Western Hemisphere first took flight.