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Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Road Gang Annual Meeting
Thursday, January 17, 2002
Washington, D.C.

Every man, woman and child in our country has the right to expect us to provide a safe, accessible, affordable and reliable transportation system. Providing this service is a worthy goal for our industry, and FHWA takes our responsibility seriously. We owe the public a return of their investment based on the taxes they pay.

The Federal Highway Administration is working with you to improve transportation for a strong America. We are partners in this task, and we need to work together to accomplish this goal.

As I began my tenure as Federal Highway Administrator on October 2, I thought it was important to check the rightness of our of our direction. I asked our leadership team to do some self-analysis of the organization to assist me in this endeavor. I talked with Secretary Mineta and many others. In addition, I received valuable input from industry groups and stakeholders, including the very substantive and valuable AASHTO analysis of how FHWA could be more effective. The leadership team at Federal Highway used this data in a series of sessions as we analyzed our organization. There was a lot of give and take, a lot of spirited discussion.

We recognized that we cannot be all things to all people . . . that we must focus on one core business. We are the highway component of a transportation department. That must be our focus and our responsibility. We are not a social policy agency, and highway is not a four letter word.

We identified the "Vital Few" areas we must concentrate on and calibrated our future direction. We tried to be realistic about our resources and what we could accomplish in the near term, the next three to five years.

Our vital few, our must do's for the agency, are safety, environmental stewardship and streamlining, and congestion mitigation. Let me add that security and reauthorization are very important, and we will work hard on them as well. I believe that if we are not seen to be responsive to these vital few issues in the short-term, we won't be "players" in the long-term.

Transportation that is responsive to citizens and businesses is vital to our nation's economic health, our quality of life and, as the events of September 11 so graphically demonstrated, the safety and security of everyone in America.

First and foremost of our vital few is the safety of our nation's highway system. 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. To put that into perspective, that is more than two-thirds of the population of Flagstaff, in my home state of Arizona. In addition, more than 3 million are injured, some very seriously.

The three "E's" -- engineering, education and enforcement -- can help prevent these crashes, as will efforts to work closely with emergency response personnel. We will work with all of you to improve safety and look for ways to make a significant difference.

Work zone safety, both for motorists and highway workers, is critical as well. I once had to tell the spouse of one of our employees that her husband would not be coming home that night because he had been killed on the job. That is something I never want to do again, nor do I want anyone else in any DOT or public works department to have to.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the security and viability of the ground transportation system was proven in its ability to absorb dispersed transportation demand when Secretary Mineta wisely grounded all air transportation to prevent further terrorist actions.

I have established a new position in the Office of the Administrator to coordinate security issues. We are providing program and technical advice on protecting infrastructure and maintenance of transportation service during and after national and regional emergencies.

Federal Highway, like all of DOT, has many security efforts under way. We've been able to share our plans as a Department in many sessions throughout TRB this week.

As discussed at the security panel on Monday:

FHWA is working with the state DOTs and local transportation agencies to identify their most high-consequence, high-value, high-vulnerability facilities. We cannot be complacent.

We are sharing the vulnerability assessment process with State DOTs.

We are holding regional emergency management workshops, focused on emergency management planning for evacuations, quarantines, and restoration of transportation operations following an emergency.

ITS technology has demonstrated that it can play a significant role in emergency response as well as in emergency protection.

The AASHTO Task Force on Transportation Security is establishing guidelines and sharing practices that help state DOTs prepare vulnerability assessments of their highway infrastructure assets, develop deterrence/surveillance/protection plans, develop emergency response plans and capabilities for handling traffic from major incidents, and respond to military mobilization needs in each state.

Environmental stewardship and streamlining remains a critical priority. We are on a mission to fix the process. 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 will work within USDOT and with other federal agencies, including CEQ, EPA, Interior, the Corps of Engineers, State DOTs and, of course, the environmental community to streamline processes.

Since the passage of TEA-21, FHWA has been tracking how long it takes an environmental impact statement to get through the process. I am happy to report that since 1999, the length of time it takes to do an EIS and get to a record of decision has decreased an entire year, from a median value of 66 months in 1999 to 54 months in 2001 -- still 4 ½ years, but a reduction of 18 percent.

I credit the hard work of many people in transportation and environmental agencies at the federal, state, and local levels and the assistance they get from the consulting community for these very promising results.

There is much to be done. We have the opportunity and my commitment to pursue streamlining with renewed vigor, placing emphasis on those areas that will make a significant difference.

We are using maximum administrative authority to advance timely efficient project reviews, on both large and small projects. We will pursue partnerships with other federal agencies to ensure environmental commitments are fair, balanced and support our critical transportation needs, especially those that address safety, security, congestion and economic priorities -- without compromising our environment. We can do that. Transportation and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive.

We will seek reform of Section 4(f) and work with AASHTO and other federal agencies to clarify responsibilities and requirements under NEPA.

We will track and analyze best practices and promote the most successful approaches through inter-agency training. We can reinforce those approaches by using websites and teleconferencing to share information.

The Secretary will soon decide whether to withdraw the FHWA and FTA notices of proposed rule-making for NEPA and transportation planning.

In the interim, we will continue to emphasize non-regulatory streamlining. These efforts include:

  • Accelerate support of streamlining among all DOT modal administrations and federal agencies.
  • Support AASHTO's environmental stewardship efforts, including the new Center for Environmental Stewardship.
  • Finalize dispute resolution procedures to provide a mechanism for elevating to Cabinet level, if necessary, any stalemated environmental decisions.

Integrating transportation and environmental decision making will work if we recognize that we can be good stewards of the human and natural environment while efficiently meeting our nation's mobility needs.

Advancing environmental streamlining is a leadership issue, and this Administration will lead on this issue because it is important.

Congestion and bottlenecks damage air quality, slow commerce, increase energy consumption, and threaten our quality of life. They waste significant time, money and productivity.

Only a 16-year-old with a new license drives for the fun of it. Most of us do so because we need to.

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.

Sometimes transportation really is about concrete, asphalt, and steel.

Of course, we must consider other options, including technology, transit, and inter-modal and multi-modal solutions. We need to 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, we need to give people choices, not mandates.

I would like to mention stewardship and accountability because they are also very important. After all, it is the public's money we are responsible for, and Congress rightly holds us accountable for the appropriate use of these funds. We need to continue to improve our federal oversight and accountability for the expenditure of public funds, without affecting the ability of states and local governments to deliver their programs.

In terms of reauthorization, I expect key elements of the Department's reauthorization bill will preserve and build on the program reforms of ISTEA and the financial reforms of TEA-21.

In my opinion, this reauthorization cycle will not be revolutionary because we have a solid base to build from. I look for a continuing evolution to live up to the promise of both TEA-21 and ISTEA. Congress has many other important issues to consider.

Most of our partners in industry and government are generally in agreement on a few broad topics:

  • Protect the firewalls and RABA to ensure responsible investment levels. Funding dedicated to transportation purposes should be used for transportation, to ensure an adequate level of investment.
  • Provide stable and predictable funding that will allow state agencies to confidently develop long-range plans. Keep the minimum guarantees in place and avoid wide swings in funding mechanisms.
  • Enhance flexibility -- this is especially important to Secretary Mineta. Since decisions are best made closest to the people, provide flexibility to state and local governments wherever possible. This is why I am so concerned about the limits to flexibility caused by extensive earmarking of apportionments, including RABA.

The reauthorization process enables us to update our programs to the demands of our times. It gives us an opportunity to emphasize security, while addressing the broad goals of mobility, congestion relief and economic growth.

The framework of the Administration's proposal will be reflected in the fiscal 2004 budget, which will be submitted in February 2003.

Under the leadership of the Office of the Secretary, FHWA and other DOT agencies are working together to develop a comprehensive proposal that will address the new issues we all face, as well as the shortcomings we've come to know while implementing TEA-21. Again, this Administration will lead.

The deteriorating overall budget picture will undoubtedly put pressure on federal transportation spending decisions. With declining revenue, we must adjust programs to reflect a negative RABA (Revenue Aligned Budget Authority) in the coming cycle. Negative RABA is a disappointment, but it is important to put it in perspective.

Over the last three fiscal years -- a time of strong economic growth -- RABA provided some $9 billion more in federal funding to states than was expected at the time TEA-21 was enacted. Negative RABA means states will need to adjust their programs. This will even out over time, but we certainly recognize the significance of its impact. There are ways we can work through this.

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

I am pleased to have the opportunity to serve as your Federal Highway Administrator during this very interesting time! I look forward to working with you to improve transportation for a strong America.

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