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Kentucky Association of Counties 44th Annual Conference & Expo

Friday, November 16, 2018

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Kentucky Association of Counties 44th Annual Conference & Expo
Lexington, Kentucky
November 16, 2018

Thank you, Gary [ Moore, Boone County Judge Executive ].    Brian [ Roy, CEO of KACO ] and Elbert [ Bennett, President of KACO ], thank you for this wonderful Conference & Expo which is so helpful to county officials. 

It is such a pleasure to be here today.  It is good to be home! 

Thanks to a former county judge-executive whom I know very well, the importance of county government in Kentuckians’ daily lives is keenly appreciated at my house.  And at my office.  You are where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, for so many essential and vital public services.     

You can be assured that this Secretary of Transportation is well aware that Kentucky’s counties build and maintain most of the state’s 80 thousand miles of public roads.  And when DOT today thinks about infrastructure, we keep in mind that Kentucky’s counties build and maintain many of the state’s bridges.  The Department intends to be your partner, because you know best the infrastructure needs of your communities. 

In this past week, there has been heightened attention to the need for federal legislation on infrastructure.  The White House and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have said in recent days that this is an area ripe for bipartisan agreement. 

The Administration’s proposal that was announced last February emphasizes empowering decision-making at the state and local level.  And also the need to:

  • Streamline permitting and speed up project delivery;
  • Address the needs of rural America, which have been ignored for too long; and,
  • Encourage local resources, including allowing the private sector to participate in infrastructure when appropriate.

The Department has already begun applying these and other principles to federal initiatives like the INFRA and BUILD transportation grant programs. 

Through an initiative called “One Federal Decision,” the Administration is also working hard to cut the red tape that is holding up project delivery. This presidential mandate requires better coordination across the government for large projects, such as allowing concurrent, rather than just sequential permitting review.  It also establishes target completion dates for federal review of large projects, and holds accountable the lead government Department or agency when deadlines are not met.  The goal is less paperwork, less red tape, and more timely improvements that will better protect and enhance Americans’ quality of life. 

This Administration also wants to ensure that the needs of rural communities, too long neglected, are better addressed.  This past year the Department has done extensive outreach to encourage rural communities to apply for INFRA and BUILD grants.  In fact, the Department had two and a half times as many rural applications to its BUILD program this year compared to last year, making up nearly 60% of all applications. As a result, DOT is awarding more resources than ever before to rural communities to make up for past years’ neglect. 

The Department is also working to increase rural utilization of the federal transportation loan programs.  This Fall the Department’s Build America Bureau launched a Rural Projects Initiatives to encourage utilization of the TIFIA loan program.  Rural projects are often smaller and less likely to attract private investment.  The TIFIA program can help but many prospective rural borrowers are unaware of it or assume it is only for larger, metropolitan-scale projects. 

In fact, rural projects of $10 million can be eligible for a TIFIA loan, as opposed to a $50 million threshold for non-rural projects.  Rural projects can benefit from a reduced interest rate equal to half the 30-year Treasury rate.  There are funds available to cover the costs of financial and legal advisors.  And rural projects could receive loans up to 49% of project costs instead of the usual 33% threshold. 

By the way, “rural” in this context is defined as an area with a population of less than 150,000 and located outside a Census-defined urbanized area.  The Department hopes more rural communities will make use of TIFIA.   

Another subject weighs heavy on my mind, and heart, and stands out on the agenda for this conference.  That is the opioid crisis, which is destroying so many lives, affecting families and communities and fueling all kinds of crime. 

Last year, this Administration declared war on the opioid crisis. A cabinet meeting was convened to focus on this and all agencies were directed to use every appropriate emergency authority to fight the opioid crisis.

These drugs are killing and injuring not just the users.  Drivers under the influence of these and other drugs are causing crashes.  Often the occupants of other vehicles and others on the roads — including pedestrians and bicyclists – are the ones who most suffer the consequences of drug users’ impaired judgment and driving skills. 

That’s where the U.S. Department of Transportation comes in.   Safety is our number one priority and drugs are a major threat to the safety of everyone on America’s roads. And they have consequences for all the modes of transportation that DOT oversees — including aviation, transit, rail and pipelines.

The scope of the drug-impaired driving problem is significant and growing. The Governors Highway Safety Association reported that 44% of drivers killed in crashes in 2016 tested positive for illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter drugs. That is a dramatic increase from the 28% testing positive in 2006. More than half of these drivers had marijuana, opioids, or both, in their system.

Law enforcement bears most of the burden of detecting drug-impaired driving.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is working with partners to develop and support police training tools.  And in recent months, NHTSA has also convened working groups of experts to develop strategies for improvements in toxicology and data collection as well as prosecution and judicial issues.

Decades of experience in highway safety makes clear that tough laws, effective enforcement and public service campaigns can change attitudes and actions, and save lives. It will take a sustained, intensive, comprehensive and collaborative effort -- at the federal, state and local levels of government.

NHTSA launched a new public awareness campaign in recent months. It coordinated with safety stakeholders across the U.S to expand both the reach and frequency of the messages through video and radio, print and social media. All of this is directed at raising public awareness that drug-impaired driving is dangerous and illegal.

So thank you and thank you to the Kentucky Association of Counties for everything you are doing to address the opioid crisis, which is so harmful to our entire society.  Please be assured that this Administration wants to be your partner in infrastructure needs; we believe you know best what your priorities in your communities are.  And I’m counting on you to stay in close touch on infrastructure and other issues of concern.  As partners, we can do a lot of good for our Commonwealth and nation. 

Thank you.