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Remarks at the AASHTO Annual Meeting

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
Annual Meeting
St. Louis, Missouri
Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Thank you, Carlos. And Jim and Brandye, thank you for all the great work that you and your team are doing to improve America’s transportation systems.

It is a great pleasure to be here with Governor Parson.  I also want to mention Senator Blunt and Senator Hawley, who are also great advocates for the transportation infrastructure needs of Missouri and our Nation.

I would like to acknowledge FHWA Administrator Nicole Nason.  It is good to have her onboard.

It’s great to be here with you again.  Everyone in this room gets how vital every mode of transportation is – to our Nation and to all 50 States and territories.  And you get that the U.S. has about 89,000 local governments - many of which are grappling with infrastructure needs that are profoundly important to their communities.  We all want to help address these needs. 

Every day, Americans take more than one billion trips – usually on the Nation’s four million miles of roads.  Forty-five percent of these daily trips are for shopping and errands, 27 percent are social and recreational and 15 percent are for commuting to work.  The U.S. Department of Transportation’s top priority – and I’ll confidently state the top priority of everyone in this room – is their safety.   

Traffic fatalities have declined 32 percent since 1972. That’s remarkable, especially considering that there has been a 153 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. In fact, the fatality rate in 1972 was nearly four times higher than it is today. This reduction in fatalities is attributable in part to improvements in roadway designs. It is estimated that projects implemented using Highway Safety Improvement Program funds save 600 lives every year.

To boost safety, economic growth and quality of life for everyone, the U.S. Department of Transportation is focused on rebuilding and refurbishing America’s infrastructure.  Last year, the Department distributed about $65 billion to help State and local governments address infrastructure needs – from roads and bridges to aviation, rail, transit and pipelines. 

This Administration would like to do even more.  Meanwhile, we will continue to deploy the funds that Congress appropriates for these purposes as expeditiously, fairly and effectively as possible. 

This Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation are especially concerned with the infrastructure needs of America’s rural communities. I always say that rural America is not looking for a handout.  Rural America just wants fairness and equity.

Rural communities and their transportation networks are vital to our nation.  Sixty-nine percent of the Nation’s lane miles are in rural areas.  Two-thirds of rail freight originates in rural areas.  But rural transportation infrastructure is challenged by disparities.  The disproportionate rate of crash fatalities in rural areas is especially alarming.  Nineteen percent of Americans live in rural areas. Yet, 72 percent of large truck occupant fatalities, 67 percent of pickup occupant fatalities, and 58 percent of SUV occupant fatalities occur in rural areas.  The fatality rate on rural roads is twice that on urban roads. 

Of the Nation’s bridges that are in poor condition, 80 percent are in rural areas.  Addressing these inequities calls for a sharper focus on our investments in rural areas to meet national priorities. So this Administration intends to solidify that commitment for the longer term.  The goal is to ensure that all projects funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation receive consideration for funding that reflects the value they provide to America’s economy and to the American people.

Today I’m excited to announce a new initiative to ensure that rural infrastructure is given full consideration in all the U.S. Department of Transportation discretionary grant programs.  This will be known as the ROUTES initiative – Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success.  We will bring together leaders and staff in key infrastructure modes – Highways, Aviation, Transit, and Railroads – to examine grant programs’ potential to better support the Nation’s critical rural transportation infrastructure. 

Later this week, I will sign the order setting up a new Rural Transportation Council to execute and manage the ROUTES initiative and to involve stakeholders, starting with State DOTs, local governments, and national organizations. The objective is to improve analysis of rural projects that apply to receive DOT’s discretionary grants.  It will also serve as a helpful, centralized point of information for transportation officials and project sponsors serving rural areas.  And will be helpful in accessing and navigating programs and resources across the modal agencies.

This builds on the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program’s Rural Project Initiative.  That initiative, designed to encourage utilization of the TIFIA loan program, offers lower project-cost thresholds for loan eligibility, subsidized interest rates, and the cover of fees to encourage use of the credit program for infrastructure projects in rural areas. 

Prior to this Administration, only 21 percent of BUILD funding was awarded to rural areas. Since 2017, special consideration has been given to projects that emphasize improved access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation for rural communities. As a result, 70 percent of the FY2018 BUILD grants went to rural areas.  $900 million in FY2019 BUILD grants will be announced next month. 

It is important to note that rural infrastructure is not just for the sake of rural residents.  Far from it.  For example, 44 percent of rural passenger vehicle traffic is urban residents traveling to and from destinations away from their urban homes.     

While we have increased focus on rural areas, we are as intent as always on improving transportation systems throughout the Nation: 

  • In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $321 million in Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Project grants.
  • In July, the Department awarded $856 million in Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Project grants.
  • In August,  $272 million was awarded through the Federal Railroad Administration’s State of Good Repair program.  $326 million was awarded under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program and the Special Transportation Circumstances program.  And a Notice of Funding Opportunity for the new $292 million Port Infrastructure Development grant program was published.
  • Also during August, the Department awarded $225 million in Competitive Highway Bridge program grants.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is your partner in helping people, and goods, safely reach their destinations.  We want to help you build, modernize and maintain the infrastructure you think best suits the needs of your State. 

The power of transportation systems to transform a nation, improve quality of life and have a lasting impact on society, is unquestioned.

Bit-by-bit, project-by-project, mile-after-mile, those who modernize and maintain America’s transportation infrastructure are laying the groundwork for a better future, for all of our people.   

Thank you.

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Updated: Tuesday, October 15, 2019
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