Victor Mendez, Administrator, Federal Highway Administration
American Public Transportation Association "Transportation Tuesday" series
December 8, 2009
Good evening. Thank you very much for inviting me to this very highly regarded "Transportation Tuesday" forum.
I appreciate the chance to offer the "highway" perspective to the ongoing discussion, although at the end of the day, each of us in the field of transportation answers to the traveling public, whether they're traveling by public transit, by car, even by foot.
There are a number of important issues on our agenda these days at the Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. I want to touch on them briefly. I'm guessing that at this hour of the day and after a very nice reception, no one is in the mood for a long speech.
But I'm hoping I can raise a few topics that will generate some questions or discussions among all of us. I always tell people that I don't have all the answers and don't like to do all the talking. So, I want to make this as inter-active as possible.
Whether it's transit or highways or rail or air, the public wants the same thing – transportation that's safe and efficient, that allows personal mobility and enhances economic competitiveness. Today, you could also add environmentally friendly to that list.
So all modes face similar challenges, and, more than ever, share in the responsibility to find coordinated solutions.
So, the subject of livability and sustainability is as good a place to start as any.
Secretary LaHood has made it clear that we need a new outlook on transportation, one that empowers communities to prioritize their investments in roads, bike paths, public transit, airports and other infrastructure.
In giving communities greater choice, we have to make sure their priorities connect people and their jobs, improve regional mobility, and make our neighborhoods as livable and sustainable as possible.
One of the Secretary's earliest steps in this direction was to team up DOT with HUD and the EPA to better coordinate federal investments in transportation, housing, better air quality and our water infrastructure.
Our goal is to help create cleaner, healthier, more energy-efficient communities where people have plenty of transportation choices. Many will still choose their car, which is why we need roads and highways that reduce congestion and are themselves greener in design and construction. Others will choose public transit or inner-city rail. The key is to provide them choices.
STATE OF GOOD REPAIR
Keeping our infrastructure in a state of good repair is something that should concern us all. It certainly is an issue for those of us in the highway business. Many of our roads and bridges date back to the dawn of the Interstate highway era of 40 and 50 years ago. The demands of time, a mobile society and a busy economy have taken their toll.
But we can't maximize the benefits of inter-modal travel or keep our economy competitive unless we have a road and highway system in a state of good repair. I was in New Orleans a week ago, where we talked about the importance of maintaining the roads and railroads that serve key ports.
And on Sunday, I was in St. Louis to see some interesting concepts in action.
We cut the ribbon on a new I-64, which is replacing an outdated and deteriorating stretch of highway, bridges and ramps. Using modern construction planning and techniques, the project was finished more than 5 years ahead of schedule and under budget, with much less inconvenience to the public.
The new road will reduce congestion and provide safer travel through the St. Louis area. We need more creative thinking like that!
EVERY DAY COUNTS
In every place I visit, I see the public demand for those same things – relief from congestion, greater safety, and environmental sustainability. That demand, plus a life-long interest in technology, has inspired me to make some changes at FHWA itself.
I recently launched an initiative called Every Day Counts to solicit ideas from our own employees and from outside stakeholders on how to deliver projects faster and how to deploy the latest technology and innovation sooner.
We're even looking for ways to make our own agency greener and reduce our own carbon footprint. Thanks to some employee suggestions, we've defaulted our printers to print on both sides of the page and we're being much more vigilant to turn off lights when we're not in the office.
I chose the name Every Day Counts to express the sense of urgency I feel about doing this. We really have no time to waste in building our 21st century transportation system and saving our planet.
If you have any ideas, please send them to email@example.com.
Ultimately, the condition of our roads and highways are vital to keeping people safe. If I had to single out one issue that's of greatest importance to the Secretary and the rest of us, that would be it – safety.
I've spent a lot of time lately with Secretary LaHood at internal meetings and public events. And in every one of those sessions, he's spoken at great length and with great passion about safety.
The phrase "Safety is our Number One priority" is one you hear a lot around DOT. We say it so much, it can start to sound like a cliché. But I assure you, it's not. It's something we believe very strongly and that everyone at the Department is focused on.
Overall, we had the lowest number of traffic fatalities last year since 1961. But that still means 37,000 people died in traffic accidents. And that's too many.
Safer roads are part of the equation. But you can only "engineer" safety so much. The person behind the wheel is just as important.
Secretary LaHood has made it his personal mission to do something about the epidemic of distracted driving, including by rail and transit personnel.
But let me focus on the issue as it relates to highways. 6,000 people died last year in accidents that involved someone texting or talking on their phone. Another 500,000 were injured.
The Secretary held a national Distracted Driving Summit in September, and last week he attended the first state summit, which was held in Alabama.
President Obama took an important step in banning texting by federal employees driving on official business or using a government-issued device in their own car.
But laws, regulations and new rules can only do so much. In the end, distracted driving is a matter of personal responsibility. Like wearing a seat belt or not drinking and driving, EVERYONE is responsible for the safety choices that they make each and every day.
Another issue I want to mention is reauthorization, which impacts most, if not everyone, in this room.
We need a surface transportation bill that will serve the needs of our citizens, their communities and our economy.
Since SAFETEA-LU expired at the end of September, we've been operating under a series of Continuing Resolutions. We're currently under our second CR, which runs until December 18.
The Department and the administration strongly support an 18-month extension of SAFETEA-LU. The House and Senate are considering extensions of varying lengths.
But the key is having an extension that gives us time to work with Congress to develop a comprehensive long-term measure that addresses the high-priority issues we'll face in the 21st century.
Funding is certainly at – or near – the top of that list. The Highway Trust Fund remains solvent, thanks to two cash infusions from Congress in recent years. We're working closely with Congress to make sure the Trust Fund does not fail.
But Secretary LaHood has made it clear that the federal government and the states will need to find what he calls "other creative ways" beyond the Highway Trust Fund to pay for new roads.
Tolling, pricing and public-private partnerships should be part of that discussion.
By considering tolling and congestion pricing, where appropriate, we can make our scarce tax dollars go further. Toll revenue can help pay for the high costs of building new roads and maintaining existing ones. And it can help pay for travel alternatives, such as transit.
But it's not just about finding a new revenue stream.
Tolling and pricing can also change the way travelers make decisions about how and when they'll make their trips. It can encourage commuters to take transit, join a carpool, telecommute or drive at less congested times.
These are all important considerations in terms of where we started this discussion – making communities more livable by reducing congestion, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
AMERICAN RECOVERY AND REINVESTMENT ACT
The last subject I want to touch on briefly is our economy and the tremendous strides President Obama and his Administration are taking to put people back to work.
The holidays are always a time of hope for American families, and I think this year we have much to be hopeful about.
And while we still have a long way to go, and while recovery has certainly not come to every American home, I'm convinced we're moving in the right direction.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been a catalyst for much of that progress. Across all modes of transportation, we've obligated tens of billions of dollars to new infrastructure, greener technology and, most of all, creating jobs.
Since President Obama signed the Recovery Act in February, the Federal Highway Administration has committed more than $21 billion to more than 9,400 projects. That's 80 percent of the funds available to us.
More than 5,400 of those projects are underway, creating more than 30,000 jobs.
I've visited several of those projects since becoming Administrator in July. And every time I visit a project I talk to the contractors. They're a great barometer of how the Recovery Act is putting people back to work.
Some tell me their project wouldn't have gotten started for years without the stimulus funds. They tell me they were about to lay people off, but thanks to the Recovery Act they've been able to save those jobs and even hire more people. Others had already let people go, and were able to call them back. You can only imagine the relief those families felt.
Another part of the Recovery Act is our TIGER grant program, which will commit $1.5 billion to inter-modal transportation projects of regional and national significance. Hundreds of innovative proposals are currently being reviewed.
So there's plenty to be hopeful about. The President has said that a full, vibrant recovery is still months in the future. But, he also makes it clear that we're moving in the right direction.
So there's some food for discussion this evening.
Again, I want to thank you for inviting me. I urge everyone to buckle up, turn off their cell phones and drive safely.
And I look forward to your questions and comments. Thank you.