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AASHTO 2017 Annual Meeting

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
AASHTO 2017 Annual Meeting
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Phoenix, Arizona

Thank you, David [Bernhardt, AASHTO VP and Maine Commissioner of DOT] for that introduction.

And thank you, Bud [Wright, Executive Director of AASHTO] for your leadership.  Let me acknowledge some of the senior DOT leadership here today:

  • Brandye Hendrickson, Acting Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.  As many of you know, she came from Indiana.  We’re so glad to have her;
  • Mala Parker, Associate Administrator of FHWA for Policy and External Affairs;
  • Butch Waidelich, Executive Director of FHWA;
  • Jim Ray, Special Advisor to the Secretary for Infrastructure;
  • Anthony Bedell, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as many other DOT colleagues.

They are here to let you know what the Department is doing and to listen to your issues and concerns.

That’s important because so much has happened since I last visited with AASHTO on March 1, 2017! 

A bridge over I-85 in Atlanta caught fire, and collapsed into a heap of smoldering rubble.  The Department and Georgia DOT officials worked together to rebuild this important interstate and commuter artery in just 7 weeks—under budget and ahead of schedule!  It was an amazing, collaborative effort.  Kudos to our Georgia colleagues—Russell McMurry and his team— for their effective work!

And beginning in August, our country has suffered three devastating hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria.  I visited Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey with Vice President Pence. The devastation was difficult to describe.  But the outpouring of help, determination and the spirit of Texas was so inspiring! The Department released $25 million in immediate emergency relief to Texas and Florida, as well as $2.5 million for Puerto Rico and $2 million for the Virgin Islands.  MARAD has dispatched 4 ships to provide power, food, clean water and berthing for first responders and emergency workers.  And today I have released an additional $40 million to Puerto Rico for needed relief, at the governor’s request.  DOT has been operating an emergency command center 24/7.  In addition, many of our colleagues have volunteered for additional relief duties.    The President is going to Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

Let me thank the state transportation officials from Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and many other states and territories for the tremendous work you are doing to help. I am so proud of the transportation community for stepping up not only with resources, but with volunteers during this national emergency.

Today, let me share some thoughts on what the Department is doing to move forward on regulatory reform, discretionary grant programs, and the technology of the future.

As I mentioned in March, the Administration is working on its plan to revitalize our country’s infrastructure.  The principles have been announced, and the details are currently being worked out. The congressional legislative calendar, however, is packed for the rest of this year.  Tax reform will come first. So the infrastructure package will probably not be taken up until tax reform is considered. Thank you for all your suggestions on the infrastructure proposal—your ideas are important to us!

In the meantime, there are many DOT programs available to help your communities.  Recently, the Department unveiled the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants program—called INFRA Grants.  It will make $1.5 billion in discretionary grants available.  Compared to the FASTLANE grants, INFRA Grants will use updated evaluation criteria.  These projects can leverage more non-Federal funding, which will encourage innovation and allow federal dollars to go further.  This program will set aside at least one-quarter of its funding for rural projects.  Allowing the private sector to participate in financing of public infrastructure is widely used throughout the world to fund infrastructure.  But in the US, there are certain states that discriminate against private funds, like pension funds, which are willing and eager to help build the country’s infrastructure.  Public-Private Partnerships, or P3s, are not the solution for every infrastructure challenge.  But they are an important tool. The notice soliciting INFRA grant proposals closes November 2, 2017, so please take a look.

Let me also mention the TIGER grant solicitation, announced on September 7, 2017.  It will award $500 million on a competitive basis for projects that have significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area or region. Among other criteria, special consideration will be given to projects that improve access to transportation in rural communities, and facilitate economic growth and competitiveness. You can find more information at www.transportation.gov/tiger.

Let me also share some important new regulatory and policy changes underway at the Department to help deliver infrastructure faster, and in a more responsible cost effective manner.

As you may know, I appointed a Task Force within the Department to identify and implement needed changes in the permitting and approval process. Here are just a few of the changes we are implementing.

One.  Today, we sent to the Federal Register a proposed regulatory change that will allow the Federal Railway Administration to use the same streamlined environmental review process as the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration.  This will harmonize the rules in the Department’s critical surface transportation administrations. In addition, it will exempt most concrete and steel bridges built after 1945 from historic preservation review.

Two.  In addition, the Department has issued new guidance regarding the application of categorical exclusions for multi-modal projects.  One DOT agency can now use the categorical exclusions of another DOT agency for multi-modal projects.  This change will expedite the environmental review process so infrastructure can be delivered more quickly and effectively.

Three.  The Department will also change its highway reimbursement policy to allow states to buy safety equipment directly.  It will give you the freedom to use federal safety funds to purchase, rather than just lease, construction and safety equipment.  This change should prove especially useful in rural areas that have limited resources. 

Four.  In addition, the Department will soon publish a Federal Register notice soliciting a new round of applications for the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program.  This program is a great example of the type of self-help this Administration is trying to encourage.

Five.  And finally, the Department recognizes the need for a mechanism to complete the environmental review process, even when all of the funding for a project is not yet identified. We have heard your concerns, and are currently evaluating our policy regarding fiscal constraint and the environmental process.  We welcome your input. We will continue to identify ways to eliminate unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy, which will save you time and money in compliance costs.

Now, let me turn to another key development in the future of transportation.  As you know, our country is on the verge of one of the most important innovations in transportation history.  I am referring to Automated Driving Systems (ADS), commonly known as automated or self-driving vehicles. 

Automated Driving Systems have the potential to significantly decrease highway fatalities by addressing the root causes of most highway crashes, which is human error.  They also have the potential to revolutionize travel and increase access to transportation for underserved communities, especially the elderly and disabled. 

But a lot of work remains to be done to deploy these systems safely. A recent American Automobile Association survey found that 78 percent of those polled were afraid to ride in a “driverless” car. So I have challenged the leaders of Silicon Valley to step up and address legitimate public concerns about safety, cyber security and privacy. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation has an important role to play in building and shaping this future.  That’s why on September 12th, the Department released A Vision for Safety: 2.0 to promote the safe development, testing and deployment of automated vehicle technology. This guidance clarifies and incorporates many of the concerns we heard from stakeholders and end users, and is in alignment with legislation currently pending in the U.S. Congress.  Let me call your attention to the last ten pages of this document. They identify Best Practices from around the country, and offer technical assistance to state legislatures on the safe deployment of this technology.  This document can be found on the DOT website at www.nhtsa.gov/av.   Our goal is to improve safety while preserving innovation and creativity, which are the hallmarks of America! 

As the technology advances and the Department gathers new information from stakeholders and consumers, we will continue to refine and update the guidance. In fact, DOT and NHTSA are already planning for Version 3.0 in 2018! 

Let me close by thanking you for the tremendous job you do—often with less than optimal resources—in keeping our country’s transportation system running smoothly and safely.   The way ahead you are leading increases productivity, helps maintain economic vitality and improves the quality of life for our people.  We view you—the state DOT directors and your colleagues—as partners, not adversaries. You are the owners of our country’s transportation systems.  You build them and maintain them. So the Department’s job is helping you do your job.  Our success is measured by your success.

So I look forward to working with you to ensure our country has the safe and reliable infrastructure it needs, and the future technology it deserves. 

Thank you.

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Updated: Friday, September 29, 2017
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