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Administrator Mary Peters
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Council of University Transportation Centers (CUTC)
Fifth Annual Awards Banquet
Saturday, January 12, 2002, Washington, DC

I want to thank you for the opportunity to talk with you tonight. It is indeed an honor for me to be asked to be your keynote speaker.

I especially want to thank CUTC President and University of Kentucky UTC Director Paul Toussiant and CUTC Vice President and Deputy Director of the Texas Transportation Institute Dennis Christensen for their efforts and leadership.

I know Paul and Dennis continue to work closely with many of you and with Joe Toole, Director of our Office of Professional Development, in support of the CUTC organization. I also want to recognize Denny Judycki, FHWA Director of Research, Development and Technology. Innovation in technology is critical to the effectiveness of our highway program.

I want to add a special congratulations to our awardees. You are impressive, and your accomplishments and potential bode well for the future of transportation.

We're at the start of a week of extensive meetings, technical briefings and a chance to get a deeper understanding of the industry we love. TRB is a great opportunity for technology transfer both through the many excellent sessions as well as opportunities for networking. I want to congratulate Bob Skinner and all the TRB staff for creating yet another outstanding program this year.

The five days of TRB is also an indication of how complex our transportation system has become. Perhaps our greatest challenge is to communicate and more effectively coordinate our efforts so we can maximize the return on our investment. With limited resources that will be stretched even further, we must do everything we can as a transportation community to improve the effectiveness of our nation's transportation system.

In thinking about the need for communication, coordination and improved efficiency, I'm reminded of some wisdom from a consultant in one of my favorite sources, the Dilbert comic strip.

In a recent strip, Dogbert, the dog, is talking to Dilbert's boss, the man with the pointy hair. Dogbert says, "You've got to implement a six sigma program or else you're doomed."

The boss says, "Aren't you the same consultant who sold us the worthless program a few years ago?"

Dogbert replies, "I assure you that this program has a totally, totally different name."

The pointy-haired boss goes wide-eyed and says, "Great, when can we start?"

What we are providing to the public is more than simply a repackaging of something already done. We must develop and implement programs that take technology and transportation to a new level. As hockey great Wayne Gretsky observed, "We must learn to skate to where the puck will be, not where it is or was."

As I began my tenure as Administrator . . . I was sworn in on October 2 . . . I thought it was important to recalibrate our organizational compass to assure that FHWA was headed in the right direction and to get a better sense of our "focus, alignment and accountability" as an organization. I asked our leadership team to do some self-analysis to assist me. I also talked with Secretary Mineta and many others in the Department.

Some of the most valuable input I received was from outside Federal Highway . . . from our partners and external customers, industry groups and stakeholders . . . people who were anxious to point out where we could improve the rightness of our organizational direction.

The Leadership Team at FHWA used the input we received to take a hard look at where we should be headed. The strongest message we heard was that our agency needed a clearer focus . . . one directed at our customers' needs, one which is compelling, and one where we can make a significant impact.

We identified the "vital few" areas where we must focus our resources. We tried to be realistic about what we could and should accomplish in the near term, the next three to five years.

First and foremost is the safety and security of our nation's highway system. Security is particularly important following the tragic September terrorist attacks on our nation.

The basic function of the Interstate System is the ability to move military personnel and equipment, respond to natural disasters, and facilitate interstate commerce.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the viability of the system was proven in its ability to absorb dispersed transportation demand when Secretary Mineta wisely grounded all air transportation to prevent further terrorist actions. Much remains to be done to ensure the security of the entire transportation system and I can assure you that U.S. DOT under the capable leadership of Secretary Mineta and President Bush will continue our efforts.

In terms of highway safety, we still lose far too many lives to crashes -- more than 40,000 persons lose their lives every year on the nation's highway system. In addition, more than 3 million people are injured each year, many very seriously. We can and must improve this record.

Environmental streamlining remains a critical priority. We can improve processes to make them more efficient and less duplicative while being respectful stewards of the environment.

It is not an either/or situation. We in the transportation industry can meet this nation's important mobility needs and preserve and protect the environment.

Advancing environmental streamlining is a leadership issue, and this administration will lead these efforts.

Stewardship and accountability are important priorities. After all, it is the public's money we are responsible for, and Congress rightly holds us accountable for doing so.

We need to continue to improve our oversight and accountability for the expenditure of public funds, without negatively impacting the ability of states and local governments to deliver their programs.

Congestion is the result of demand significantly outpacing capacity. Although the solution is not just to add capacity, that option must be part of our toolkit. We need to break the anti-highway cycle of limiting capacity.

You know, sometimes transportation is about concrete, asphalt, and steel!

We need to develop and apply technology to improve operations, to maintain the infrastructure, and to inform travelers of dangerous conditions and alternative routes. We also should encourage state and local governments to incorporate land-use considerations into their transportation planning process.

At the end of the day, people should have choices, not mandates.

The challenge we all face is to develop programs and solutions which put priority on those issues of greatest importance, address our national needs, yet offer practical solutions at a local level. This not an easy balance to make, but one we must make together with you.

Universities provide a link to local and regional issues, particularly in preparing students to meet the workforce needs in our public and private transportation organizations. Very simply, universities are key partners in advancing transportation, particularly in helping solve national issues and support state, local, and regional needs.

As a transportation industry, we are fortunate to have the leading educational programs in our country, colleges and universities, focused on transportation through dedicated programs and UTCs have a great advantage of diversity of subjects through their designated themes.

We are also indebted to you for your commitment to developing a new generation of transportation professionals. I am becoming increasingly concerned about a significant shortage of qualified and experienced transportation professionals, and we need help from UTCs to fill that compelling need.

Some estimates put the workforce shortage at 40-50% as transportation workers begin to retire in the next 5-15 years. In fact, forty percent of our state and local workforce today is between the ages of 45-64.

These workers will take with them years of experience, institutional knowledge and skill that will be difficult to replace. The task will be made even more difficult as the competition for qualified professionals from other industry sectors drives up salaries and benefits.

New, innovative programs must be considered that will increase the number of students with an interest in transportation and better prepare them to enter the transportation workforce. There is no better way to do this than by providing opportunities for universities to offer meaningful research programs that will interest and challenge students.

Involvement in K-12 transportation related education programs, closer cooperation and communication with the FHWA division offices and state DOTs for transportation workforce development, support for Summer Transportation Institute programs, continued work on e-learning and information sharing and, of course, continuing to involve and expand the number of university students in the UTC transportation research program are only a few ideas.

With your talent and resources, I'm sure the UTC's can develop many effective approaches. I encourage you to continue to work with Denny Judycki, Joe Toole and others in the Department in these efforts.

Of course this information will be of particular importance as we move into the reauthorization of TEA-21. As you well know, we are in the process of developing positions for reauthorization. It is clear that most industry partners and government agencies are generally in agreement on some topics:

  • Protect the firewalls and RABA
  • Provide minimum guarantees
  • Enhance flexibility -- decisions are best made closest to the people

And I must mention the issue of extensive earmarking that limits competition and discretion in directing our resources to where it can provide the best benefit.

At this point, the process at DOT involves coordinating the reauthorization initiative with the Office of the Secretary and with working groups at all surface modal administrations. A key element is to hear from you with your ideas . . . what should we keep . . . .what should we change?

I am pleased that we have already entered into that dialogue with you, and I hope that we continue to work together to shape the future of our most important legislation.

The deteriorating budget picture undoubtedly will put pressure on federal spending decisions in the current budget cycle. But, personally, I believe strongly that we cannot forfeit our future by simply focusing on the short-term. We must continue to support a strong program of research, innovation, education, technology transfer, and workforce development. This is our future.

We look to you to provide leadership in your states and regions.

I urge you to be a catalyst for change in an industry that is changing faster than ever.

As the proverb says: "May we live in interesting times." And we certainly are.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to serve as your Federal Highway Administrator during this very interesting time!

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