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FHWA Fall Business Meeting

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation
FHWA Fall Business Meeting
Washington, DC
Wednesday, Sept 13, 2017

Thank you, Brandye [Hendrickson – Acting FHWA Administrator], for that warm introduction.  And thank you Butch [Waidelich] for being our emcee today. Let me also acknowledge Mala Krishnamoorti Parker, who just joined FHWA as Associate Administrator for Policy and External Affairs.

Let me begin by thanking you for the great work you are doing in helping our country recover from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, and in making sure our colleagues who live in these areas safe.  I visited Texas with Vice President Pence, the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of Labor, the Acting Secretary of Home Land Security and Governor Abbott, who is just amazing. The devastation we witnessed brought us to tears!

I was so proud to be wearing a DOT jacket, because of everything you and your colleagues are doing.  It will take time for Texas, Florida and the other impacted regions to recover.  But you will always remember your role in helping to repair and rebuild these wonderful areas of our country.  So thank you again!

Today, I’m so pleased to have this opportunity to meet with FHWA’s senior career leadership.  With a history that goes back more than 120 years, the Federal Highway Administration and its predecessors have played a key role in our country’s economic and continental development. The railroads may have been the first to unite the coasts.  But it was the interstate highway system that gave ordinary Americans access to the whole country.  In fact, the term “the open road” has come to epitomize freedom itself.   So you are the guardians of a cherished heritage.

Last week, the President nominated Paul Trombino to be the next Federal Highway Administrator. Many of you know him, or know of him, from his time as the director of the Iowa DOT.  He has a great reputation within the DOT community, and will be a great addition to the team.

In 1992, the government declared the Interstate Highway System completed. But this marked a new phase of your mission, not the end.  With the 21st century upon us, innovative new technologies are emerging that will transform the way we travel, work and trade.  Just as the bicycle craze of the 1890s created the demand for new and better roads, automated technologies will create the demand for better, more modern infrastructure.  Maintenance and modernization will be key drivers of your mission in the 21st century. 

They will not only help us improve the efficiency of America’s road system, but improve its safety, as well.  Our shared goal of a safer system is a top priority. New technologies offer hope we will be able to reduce the annual roadway fatality figures significantly in the years to come.  Because, as you know so well, the majority of crashes on our roads are caused by driver error.  And one of the most prevalent issues is cellphone use—especially, texting and driving.  Also drinking and driving, and speeding. The list goes on and on.

New technologies offer real potential to improve safety on our roads.

Just yesterday I announced a new framework to encourage the safe testing and deployment of Autonomous Driving Systems.  This new technology can help drivers avoid crashes, reduce the time spent commuting, and allow millions – including the elderly and people with disabilities – to gain access to the freedom of the open road.  And it could help reduce highway fatalities and injuries significantly. But it is also critical to address legitimate public concerns about the safety, security and privacy of this technology. And as you may know, a recent survey by the American Automobile Association found that 78 percent of US drivers reported feeling afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle. Only 19 percent said they would trust the vehicle, and 4 percent said they were unsure.  So there is still a lot of work to do to gain public acceptance.

But to get the most out of this new technology, our infrastructure must be updated.  It must be “smart.”  The vehicles of the future will talk to each other, as well as communicate with the infrastructure around them. I know FHWA is already working on smarter infrastructure.  You are also experimenting with new materials and construction techniques that will last longer, and possibly reduce environmental impact, such as water run-off.  These innovations are right in line with this Administration’s focus on revitalizing our country’s critical infrastructure. Your experience and knowledge will be in great demand as state and local officials upgrade and modernize their highways.

In addition, this Administration is designing a new paradigm to help fund and finance our country’s critical infrastructure.  A key part of that paradigm will be unleashing the billions in private capital available for investment in infrastructure.  In many cases, this means the use of Private Public Partnerships, or P3s.  Often, these partnerships include toll roads—which, as you know, have quite a long history in our country going back to colonial times.  But toll roads are not an appropriate solution for every part of the country.  This Administration wants an inclusive approach that addresses the needs of all areas of the country—urban and rural.  That’s why the Administration’s infrastructure proposal will include direct funding set aside for rural infrastructure projects, and for transformational projects that would have national impact.  

States and localities will also seek your expertise when they pursue TIGER grants, or Infrastructure for Rebuilding America – INFRA – grants.  Compared to the FAST Act, the INFRA Grants will use updated evaluation criteria in line with this Administration’s priorities.  States and localities that secure some funding or financing of their own for infrastructure projects will be given higher priority access to new federal funds. The goal is to use federal funds as an incentive, or “seed money” to get projects underway and built more quickly, with greater participation by state, local and private partners.  

Let me also share a few thoughts about another White House initiative that will impact not only FHWA, but all agencies within DOT.  As you may know, 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.  Permits must be issued within 90 days of a Record of Decision.  In addition, all federal environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects must be completed within two years. 

We are in the process of working out the details and understanding the impact of One Federal Decision upon the Department.  But a stated goal of this proposal is cutting the federal review process from an average or ten years to two.  That’s a daunting goal.  But it’s also an opportunity to take a close look at the implementation of our programs and processes, and how we can revamp them to better serve the public.

As you may know, the Department has already established a Task Force on Regulatory Reform that has identified additional legislative and regulatory changes to streamline project approval.  Some changes being considered include eliminating duplicative processes, and allowing concurrent rather than sequential permitting.  The Task force also discovered regulatory relief provisions that are already on the books but have never been implemented.  For example, there is a provision of the FAST Act requiring states to consider whether a Public Private Partnership arrangement could work for large projects.  We would like to implement this provision more robustly.

As we implement this new paradigm, I encourage you to bring your best ideas and thinking to help us revitalize and modernize our country’s infrastructure to keep the public safe.   And I look forward to working with you to continue FHWA’s time-honored—and vital—mission of preserving a treasured heritage and connecting our citizens to a prosperous future.

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