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Remarks at Mississippi Coastal Region Transportation Summit

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Mississippi Coastal Region Transportation Summit
Biloxi, Mississippi
August 29, 2019

Thank you, Chairman Wicker for inviting me to participate in this Transportation Summit.  Thank you for your leadership of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and your efforts to improve transportation infrastructure not only in your home state of Mississippi but our country as well.

We are also lucky to have Senator Hyde-Smith, Congressman Palazzo,  Commissioner King, Chairman Ladner and so many other important guests at this summit.

The Gulf Regional Planning Commission is to be commended for hosting this event.  Good regional transportation planning is vital for a stronger economy, robust job creation and a better quality of life.

The Gulf Coast’s transportation system benefits the nation as well as the region.  Its air, water, rail, and road systems support fishing, shipping, tourism, agriculture, and now, energy.

On July 31, 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy authorized LNG exports from the Gulf LNG liquification project in Mississippi.  And with completion of the Panama Canal expansion, Gulfport has become a top 20 port for containerized cargo.

And the Gulf has other vital industries.  For example, the Huntington Ingalls Shipyard at Pascagoula has built many Navy and Coast Guard warships.  It also laid the hull of the Pride of America, the largest cruise ship to ever sail under the American flag, and the first new U.S. flagged ocean-going passenger ship in nearly 50 years.   I strongly supported completion of this ship as Secretary of Labor, and attended its christening in 2005. 

The Gulf Regional Planning Commission has a challenging mission – not the least of which is preparing for hurricanes.   Biloxi is hit or brushed by hurricanes or tropical storms every 2 or 3 years.  Planning helps the region to build more resilient transportation systems, cope with oncoming storms, and to recover after the storms pass through.

It is a big job, and the Commission and its member governments have friends in Washington:  1) as mentioned, the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Senator Wicker; 2) your congressional delegation and governor; and 3) the United States Department of Transportation which wants to partner with you to build, modernize and maintain the transportation infrastructure you think best suits the needs of your state. 

Our efforts at the U.S. Department of Transportation are guided by three priorities:

First is safety. 

Second, as the President mentioned, is to address the deteriorating infrastructure in our nation.  This is vital to our country’s productivity, economic vitality and quality of life.

Third, to prepare for the transportation system of the future by engaging with new and emerging transportation technologies, to address legitimate public concerns about safety, privacy, and security, while not hampering innovation.  We are in a historic period of transportation innovation, including drones, automated vehicles, supersonic aircraft, and re-usable commercial space rockets.

The U.S. Department of Transportation provides financial resources, information and assistance to promote these priorities.  And, in some cases, this involves smarter regulations.  For example, on August 14th, 2019, we published a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comments on changes to hours of service rules.

This proposed rule seeks to enhance safety by giving America’s commercial drivers more flexibility, while maintaining the safety limits on driving time. In addition, the proposed rule is estimated to provide $274 million in savings for the U.S. economy and American consumers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation distributed approximately $65 billion annually to help state and local governments to address infrastructure needs.  

And, under this Administration’s guidance, the Department is also ensuring that rural areas, which were historically neglected, get proper consideration. I come from a rural state and I know that rural America is not looking for a handout – it is seeking its fair share and equity in the distribution process.

Since 2017, consideration has been given to projects that emphasize improved access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation for rural communities.

This is good policy!  About 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas. And, about one-third of the total vehicle miles traveled in 2017 were in rural areas.  Yet, rural areas accounted for 46 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2017. So, from a safety point of view, we need to pay attention to rural America.

Since this Administration came in 2017, in addition to the formula grants that your state receives, there are discretionary grant programs which have also helped Mississippi.  The BUILD Infrastructure program awarded $38 million to Mississippi projects.  And BUILD’s predecessor, FASTLANE 2017, awarded $7.5 million to rehabilitate 90 miles of track for the North Central Mississippi Railway Project. 

Other U.S. Department of Transportation assistance include $14 million in another infrastructure program called TIGER grant to the Port of Pascagoula for completion of its Intermodal Improvement Project. 

We also announced a $33 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program grant in June to restore passenger service and improve freight rail operations between Mobile and New Orleans.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has provided Mississippi more than $92 million for public transportation over the past three fiscal years. 

The funds have been used for the Gulfport Bus Tram Bridge project, bus purchases, preventative maintenance, transit infrastructure, and mobility services for seniors and individuals with disabilities.

The Department has also awarded a $536,000 Small Shipyard Grant to VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula to purchase equipment for its blast and paint shop.

This is the first year that the Department has issued Restoration & Enhancement Grants, and I could not think of a better project than Gulf Coast passenger rail service – for which Chairman Wicker has worked so hard.

Severe hurricane damage shut down passenger service 14 years ago, but today we take a crucial step towards restoring a key mobility option for the people of coast Mississippi.  I want to thank Chairman Wicker for being a real champion of this $65.9 million project, which could pump more than $282 million per year into the Mississippi economy.

I am excited to announce today that the U.S. Department of Transportation is awarding a Restoration & Enhancement Grant worth nearly $4.4 million to the Southern Rail Commission to support this effort.

Secondly, today, I am pleased to unveil grants made under a new national program – the Competitive Highway Bridge Program.

A total of $225 million has been awarded to 20 projects in 18 states.  Applicants had to bundle at least two bridge repair or replacement projects into a single contract.  This not only saves money; it saves time.  Mississippi was one of only two states to receive funding for more than one proposal. 

In fact, Mississippi is receiving:

  • $10.1 million to replace four bridges in in Tallahatchie, Yalobusha and Attala Counties, and,
  • $6.6 million to replace eight bridges in Lincoln, Marion, Jefferson Davis and Walthall Counties.

 These grants to Mississippi are an investment in the Gulf Coast region that will benefit everyone.

So, I’m pleased to be here today to announce the Restoration & Enhancement grants and the Competitive Highway Bridge Program grants.  Congratulations on winning these grants.  

With improved transportation infrastructure in place, communities can help build a better quality of life, increase safety, move people and freight faster and create more jobs and opportunities.  

Thank you! 

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