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American Public Transportation Association Annual Conference

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
American Public Transportation Association Annual Conference
Atlanta, GA
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Good morning, everyone. Thank you for that introduction, Nat [Ford, Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO and APTA incoming chair]. It’s great to see you and the board again after our meeting in February.

I’m so pleased to be here.

Let me recognize some of the Department’s senior leaders who are also here today:

  • Jane Williams, Acting Administrator for the Federal Transit Administration,
  • Matthew Welbes, the Executive Director for FTA and;
  • We also have a number of FTA Associate Administrators and the Regional Administrator from Atlanta with us.

America’s transit systems are a critical part of our transportation system. It’s noteworthy the critical role MARTA played in keeping Atlanta moving during the collapse and reconstruction of I-85. Kudos to Keith Parker and his staff.

And let me also acknowledge Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry, who is here with us.

American transit serves more than 10 billion people a year. Continued collaboration between federal, state, and local governments, transit providers, and private companies make that possible.

And ridership is up. The American Public Transportation Association released a study last week showing that public transit ridership in rural and small towns has grown 8 percent between 2007 and 2015, despite declining rural populations.

And now, it is more important than ever that we continue to work together – especially through challenging times such as this year’s record hurricane season.

Beginning in August, our country has suffered a series of devastating hurricanes. Vice President Pence, Second Lady Karen Pence and I visited Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma. The devastation was heartbreaking.  But the outpouring of help, determination and the spirit we saw was inspiring! The Department released $25 million in immediate emergency relief to Texas and Florida, as well as $2 million for the Virgin Islands.  I have also directed that $42.5 million in Emergency Relief Funds be released to help rebuild Puerto Rico's roads and bridges, and $8.4 million be released to support its transit systems, which include ferries and buses.

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And the FTA’s Regional Offices have also been instrumental in helping to get transit systems operating again in the affected areas.

Tragedies such as these highlight the importance of a strong national infrastructure.  America’s aging infrastructure is growing more congested and is failing to keep pace with technological change. These problems affect mass transit, as well.  Public transit faces a maintenance backlog of $90 Billion.

It is important to replace aging transit near the end of its useful life with newer, cleaner models that are also more efficient. So, on September 15th, the Department announced $55 million in grant selections through the Low or No Emission Vehicle program.  This program funds the development of transit buses and infrastructure that use advanced fuel technologies. Fifty-one projects in 39 states will receive a share of the funding.

As you know, this Administration is committed to rebuilding our critical infrastructure, including transit. That’s why the President has proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that will use $200 billion in direct federal funding as seed money to encourage investment in infrastructure over ten years. The principles have been announced.  And DOT is working with the White House and 16 other departments and agencies on this plan, which will include more than transportation infrastructure, such as energy, broadband and Veteran’s hospitals.

The plan seeks to mobilize innovative federal, state, local and private sector investment in infrastructure.  One potentially useful tool could be public-private partnerships, which are used widely throughout the world.  They are not the solution for every project, but can provide another option for financing. The Department wants to encourage states to leverage resources to make taxpayer dollars go further to support sound projects, including transit projects.

The Maryland Purple Line, under the leadership of Governor Hogan, broke ground in August and is a good example of what can be achieved when federal, state, local and private partners work together.  Combined with sound planning, the project serves as a best practices example for the rest of the country. It’s easier to support projects that don’t rely on a majority of federal funding.

I encourage other states to emulate the success Maryland has seen with the Purple Line when planning their future projects.

Regulatory reform and streamlining project delivery are two other critical components of this Administration’s infrastructure initiative.

On August 15, 2017, the White House issued an executive order to set up a One Federal Decision mandate. It requires decision-making for every major infrastructure project to be centralized under one federal department. It also states that all federal environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects must be completed within two years.  That is far better than the current average of ten years.  This new process will streamline project delivery, and provide significant time and cost savings, as well.

Following the Executive Order, the Department has begun to identify and implement necessary changes in the permitting and approval process.  Some changes being considered include eliminating duplicative processes, and allowing concurrent rather than sequential permitting. 

Let me share a few examples:

Recently, the Department sent a proposed regulatory change to the Federal Register that will allow the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to use the same streamlined environmental review process as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This will harmonize the rules in the Department’s critical surface transportation administrations. It will also exempt most concrete and steel bridges built after 1945 from historic preservation review.

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 these projects.  This change will expedite the environmental review process so infrastructure can be delivered more quickly and effectively.

This summer, the Department also submitted a draft exemption to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. It would expedite certain projects on railroad and rail transit infrastructure, within rights-of-way that have minimal impact on historic properties. The exemption would make maintenance and upgrades easier, reduce costs, and save time by decreasing the number of required reviews. 

So the Department is doing a lot!  To highlight these and other reforms, the Department was pleased to participate in the Administration’s “Cut the Red Tape Day,” on October, 2nd

As we move forward, the Department also recognizes the value of technology and innovation in transforming our transportation systems.

Automated Driving Systems – commonly referred to as automated or self-driving vehicles – hold the promise to save countless lives and increase access to transportation for underserved communities, such as the elderly and disabled.

The FTA is currently providing research grants to test automated safety features and systems for possible use on public transportation vehicles.  

Bus Rapid Transit services – often fixed-route with fewer stops – may be a good fit for fully-automated transit buses.

The FTA is also exploring some practical applications of new technology through its Mobility on Demand Sandbox program. This program supports pilot projects around the country to test safe, affordable and reliable multi-modal transportation options. The goal is to enhance mobility by integrating technology in ways that connect people to more choices when deciding how to get to and from their destinations.

But while the Department is busy working on these and many other initiatives, let me assure you that safety will always remain a top priority. So, let me close by encouraging states with rail transit systems to ensure they have their State Safety Oversight program approved and certified by the FTA by April 15, 2019.

Ohio was the first state to obtain certification and I am pleased to announce that Minnesota is now the second.

I cannot underscore enough how important this is. The certification deadline is now less than two years away. So time is becoming critical for all affected states, especially those that still need state legislative action.

Public transit will continue to play an important role in the future of our nation’s infrastructure. The Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration are committed to working with you to keep our transit systems safe, reliable, and accessible. Thank you.

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Updated: Thursday, October 12, 2017
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