Speech

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03.01.2017 - AASHTO Legislative Conference

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
AASHTO Legislative Conference
Washington, D.C.
March 1, 2017

It is a pleasure to be here with you -- the front-line warriors in charge of building, maintaining and repairing our transportation infrastructure. 

You understand, as I do, that infrastructure is the underpinning of our country’s world-class economy—one of the most productive, flexible and dynamic in the world.  It is a key factor in productivity growth, which has provided millions of hard-working Americans with a standard of living that is the  envy of the world.  And it has provided us with unprecedented mobility, safety and security.   Yet today, these gains are jeopardized by infrastructure in need of repair the specter of rising highway fatalities, growing congestion and by a failure to keep pace with emerging technologies.

Just this past week, USA Today reported that American motorists spend more than 6.9 billion hours sitting in traffic. 

That amounts to more than $300 billion in wasted time and fuel. 

Businesses employing millions of workers are losing their competitive edge because our country’s infrastructure can’t accommodate their logistical systems. That means more supply chain disruptions and inventories that languish longer than necessary in warehouses.  That adds unnecessary costs to the bottom line, and drives up the cost of goods and services. 

There are U.S. ports in need of dredging, because they can’t accommodate the newest container ships and technology, impairing global trade.

And our aviation system is running out of capacity to handle the one billion passengers projected to fly annually by the end of the next decade.

It all adds up to lost opportunities and disappearing jobs. 

Our country is at the tipping point.  Business as usual is no longer an option.  We need a bold new vision, and a new approach.

As the President mentioned last night in his State of the Union address, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who initiated the last truly great national infrastructure program – the building of the interstate highway system.  The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding.

This Administration is only six weeks old.  Yet already numerous meetings have been held—at the White House and at the Department of Transportation—with key infrastructure stakeholders from all over the country.  Under the President’s direction, the White House is leading the effort to put together a package to rebuild, refurbish and revitalize our country’s critical infrastructure.  And last night, the President announced he will ask the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States. It will be financed through both public and private capital – creating millions of new jobs.

As you know, this is my third tour at the U.S. Department of Transportation, and I have great respect for the career professionals in the department.  The Department always stands ready to help your organizations with technical and other assistance.

But there is so much more we can do to help you accomplish your mission of building and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure. 

So let me share a few thoughts.

First, I think everyone can agree that our country can no longer afford to take decades to build a new bridge, highway or airport.  What are the obstacles standing in the way of timelier project delivery?  Are there processes that could be streamlined?  Are we implementing fully recent changes in the FAST Act that allow more flexibility in environmental reviews, permitting and project delivery?  We will seek your advice in identifying and addressing the unnecessary bottlenecks. So if you have specific recommendations for improvement, please let us hear from you.

Second, the President has launched an important regulatory reform initiative.  As part of this effort, the department will likely revisit a number of proposed and final rulemakings to further streamline project delivery, and reduce unnecessary administrative burdens.   Let me assure you, however, that safety will continue to be a priority.  That’s why we must ensure that regulatory decisions are rooted in analysis derived from sound science and data.  They should also include risk-based analysis that prevents accidents before they happen, and considers the costs and benefits of new rulemakings.

Third, we will be taking a close look at our discretionary grant programs.  For example, the department could explore ways to direct resources at critical infrastructure that is both nationally significant                            and in urgent need of repair.   That’s just one option to ensure that scarce federal dollars are targeted more effectively. 

Fourth, the department will be looking at new ways to unleash the potential for private investment in our nation’s infrastructure.  There are many innovative financing tools available, such as public-private partnerships that can be more fully utilized. This model has been successfully used in many of your states.  In order to take full advantage of the estimated trillions in capital that equity firms, pension funds and endowments can invest, these partnerships must be incentivized with a bold new vision.  Barriers that hamper our ability to tap the full potential of public private partnerships need to be removed.  We look forward to working with you to explore all the options, and to create a mix of practical solutions—both public and private—that provide the greatest cost-benefit to the public.

Looking to the future, we also have a unique opportunity to address some of the exciting new technologies that could revolutionize our transportation infrastructure.

I’m talking, of course, about the new automated technologies that have the potential to dramatically change commercial transportation and private travel, expanding access for millions. The private sector is driving these innovations, working with cities and states like yours to demonstrate the safety and efficiency of automated cars and trucks. 

In addition to commercial applications, automated technology can help build a massive network of passengers and expand access to transportation for underserved populations, especially the elderly and disabled. Automated technology, which includes autonomous or driverless vehicles, also has the potential to improve safety on our roads and highways, which is always a priority. 35,092 people died in traffic crashes in 2015, a seven percent increase over the previous year.  In the first nine months of 2016, fatalities increased again by eight percent over the previous year.  Research shows that 94 percent of crashes are due to human error.  Automated technology has the potential to help eliminate human error and reduce crashes and fatalities. So there’s a lot at stake in getting this technology right. 

Drones are another exciting emerging technology.  As you know, companies are testing numerous commercial applications for drones.  UPS is testing a delivery drone in Florida, for example. But drones also have a role to play in safeguarding our infrastructure. 

Rail lines already use them for safety checks on equipment and tracks. They have been used in emergency response in the U.S. for more than a decade.

Drones can also inspect pipelines for leaks, protect first responders in accidents involving derailments and hazardous materials, and help save lives in many other emergency situations.

As I mentioned during my confirmation, the federal role in this emerging technology is still in its infancy.  As a first step, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a Federal Automated Vehicles Policy this past September. This administration is reevaluating this guidance. We will consult with you and other stakeholders as we update and amend it, to ensure it strikes the right balance.

And regarding drone policy, we will ask for your input as the FAA develops standards and regulations to ensure that drones can be safely integrated into our country’s airspace.

This is just the beginning. We want to work with you to ensure that the federal government is a catalyst for safe, effective technologies, not an impediment. 

The future is so full of promise.  Your experience and expertise are vital to helping us identify obstacles, craft policies, and implement programs that will revitalize our country’s infrastructure.  So I look forward to working with you to ensure that these critical assets will, once again, be the envy of the world and second to none.

Thank you.

Updated: Thursday, March 2, 2017
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