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Southern Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Annual Meeting

Monday, August 26, 2019

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Southern Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (SASHTO) Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia
August 19, 2019

Thank you, Russell.

It's great to be here, with so many state transportation leaders. The Department works every day to strengthen its partnerships with state DOTs and local governments. Together, we're building better transportation infrastructure for all Americans.

Savannah's history includes transportation innovation.  The SS Savannah made the first steamship crossing of the Atlantic in 1819.  And in 1959, the world's first nuclear-powered merchant ship, the NS Savannah, was launched.

So, this is a great place to talk about the historic wave of innovation sweeping through transportation.

These innovations include new, quieter supersonic aircraft. 

They include Unmanned Aircraft Systems - or drones.  They are being flown to conduct disaster management, search and rescue operations, precision agriculture, and law enforcement.  Other uses, including carrying passengers, are being planned.  There are more than 1.4 million registered drones in the U.S.  and more than 144,000 FAA-registered drone operators - nearly triple the number in 2017.

Other transportation innovations include clean-burning Natural Gas-powered ships, zero emission buses, and faster railways.  Reusable rockets are propelling commercial space to new levels.  Six years ago, the U.S. was third behind Russia and China in commercial space launches. Today, the U.S. is Number One.

This kind of transportation innovation has always been in America's DNA. 

And, these achievements show that transportation innovation can transform our nation.  Every day, Americans take more than one billion trips - usually via the nation's 4 million miles of roads.  45 percent of these daily trips are for shopping and errands, 27 percent are social and recreational and 15 percent are for commuting to work.

It is possible to take for granted the relative ease of travel in the U.S. only because of the concerted efforts taking place, every day, in state highway and transportation offices. 

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

Last year, DOT distributed about $65 billion to help state and local governments address infrastructure needs.  And we are seeking to assist you in other ways, including improving permitting processes. 

The need for change was highlighted in 2017, after a fire caused a bridge to collapse on busy I-85, outside of Atlanta.  The Department fast-tracked approvals and cut red tape to help Commissioner McMurry and his team at Georgia Department of Transportation.   As a result, the bridge was replaced in only 43 days, for $15 million - ahead of schedule and below budget!

This showed that when the U.S. Department of Transportation works closely with state transportation departments, you get results - and the public also benefits.  And it showed the benefit of improving the permitting and grant-making processes, without compromising safety or the environment.

This reduces costs, encourages innovation, and makes it easier to build or repair needed infrastructure.

For example, the Administration's "One Federal Decision" initiative is streamlining the permitting process, provides better coordination between agencies, helps prevent cost overruns, and holds the lead agency accountable for meeting deadlines.

And, the Department has acted to ensure that rural areas, which were historically neglected, get proper consideration. It's important to note that rural America is not looking for a handout - it just wants fairness and equity.

The disproportionate rate of crash fatalities in rural areas is especially alarming. Although 19% of people in the U.S. live in rural areas, 73% of large truck occupant deaths, 67% of pickup occupant deaths, and 57% of SUV occupant deaths occur in rural America.

This Administration has addressed the equity problem. Prior to this Administration, only 21% 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% of the FY2018 BUILD grants went to rural areas. The Department will announce the FY2019 BUILD grant awards later this year.

In addition, the Department is implementing Administration guidance to prioritize safety, and empower decision making by state and local government.

Our country's aviation infrastructure is also vital to local, state and national economic health.  You know how airports can help drive growth.  Nationwide, Aviation infrastructure supports an industry that generates $1.6 trillion in economic activity - and nearly 11 million jobs.

In FY2018, DOT issued Airport Improvement Program grants totaling $3.46 billion - 30% of which went to SASHTO member states.  In FY2019, DOT has announced another investment of $2.4 billion in AIP grants. These AIP grants will help the nation's aviation infrastructure keep pace with record aviation industry growth.  And, on October 5th, 2018, the President signed the bipartisan FAA Reauthorization Act - the first 5-year reauthorization since 1982. This important legislation included $16.5 billion for new airport infrastructure investment.

These investments, regulatory reforms and innovation will help propel continued economic growth - which has been remarkable during this administration:

*    The U.S. economy grew 2.8% in the first half of 2019;
*    The national unemployment rate of 3.7% is about the lowest in 50 years; and
*    Businesses have added more than 6 million jobs since the 2016 election.

So this is an extraordinary era in transportation and in our nation.  And the Department will continue to be your partner, to help make America's transportation systems even better.  And ultimately to improve quality of life for all Americans.