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January 31, 2011

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DOT Officials Stress Optimism for Transit Funding
BY LAUREN MARKOE, Special to Passenger Transport

The federal commitment to high-speed rail remains high and the federal government will release its high-speed rail funding on schedule, DOT officials said at a Jan. 25 session during the Transportation Research Board’s 90th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

As they discussed other transportation initiatives over the course of the session, panelists expressed similar optimism, though some audience members questioned the feasibility of getting projects authorized and funded.

“I remind you that, 25 years from now, we will have 70 million more Americans,” said DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari, one of 11 federal officials on the panel. “How are we going to keep the mobility and the freedom of transportation choices that Americans enjoy? It’s hard to envision that future without high-speed rail as one of the alternatives.”

As for the $8 billion President Barack Obama announced a year ago as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to develop a nationwide high-speed rail system, “we’re substantially ahead of schedule in getting those dollars obligated,” said Joseph C. Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

According to Szabo, about 54 percent of the $8 billion, or $4.3 billion, is already obligated, and the law requires that all that money for high-speed rail be obligated by Sept. 30, 2020. “We’re highly confident that we’ll have all $8 billion obligated at least one year in advance,” he said.

An additional $2.5 billion for high-speed rail included in Fiscal Year 2010 federal appropriations also will be released, but the priority is the $8 billion, Szabo added.

Administrator Peter M. Rogoff of the Federal Transit Administration responded to an audience member’s question about how federal officials handled the influx of ARRA funds for transportation projects. He emphasized that the question should be pursued in the context of more traditional federal funding.

“What we really need to look at is the Recovery Act money in combination with the regular annual apportionments that are made to transit agencies and state DOTs, and see what we accomplished pulling that money together,” Rogoff said. “Frankly, did the acceleration of one slow down the other, or were we all collectively able to pull off the acceleration within the normal time frame?”

Another audience member questioned the nation’s appetite for large public transportation projects in the coming years, citing support for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after he stopped the proposed Access to the Region’s Core passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City.

Porcari countered that public opinion is on the side of more investments in large transportation projects. “You can see and drive on and ride in the results of these investments,” he said. “Many people get it.”

Panelists also touted DOT programs to improve safety in public transportation and on the nation’s highways, and to boost research into greener fuels and vehicles. They highlighted Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s specific concern about the dangers of distracted driving.

Victor Mendez, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, talked about high-tech, federally funded research that aims to understand what drivers are focusing on behind the wheel. “They’re actually tracking the retina as it moves around,” Mendez said.

Also, David L. Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, described how his agency is working on guidelines that deal with on-board entertainment systems, navigational telephonics, and other stimuli that may take a driver’s attention off the road. “Distraction clearly is a multimodal activity,” he said.

“We’re looking at cognitive distraction as a critically important cross-cutting area of research,” said Peter H. Appel, administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration. “It doesn’t just affect the person driving the car.”

Roy W. Kienitz, DOT undersecretary for policy, acknowledged that many audience members were seeking information on a possible federal surface transportation authorization bill and teased that they would have to wait for release of the legislation. He did, however, offer general themes for a bill, including a stress on competition for dollars, an effort to distribute DOT funds to municipalities and groups that have traditionally been passed over, and a focus on intermodalism. “How do we actually run programs that fit with one another?” he said.

Also within the context of authorization, John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, asked the panel about the possibility of a statutory change that could help reduce the length of time in the highway project approval process.

“We certainly will be seeking input from states and stakeholders on how we can make our overall regulatory posture more productive and efficient, to get rid of anything that looks to be antiquated or counterproductive,” said Robert S. Rivkin, DOT general counsel.

Another panelist warned of the limitations imposed by the complicated process that goes into creating an authorization bill for federal funding. “To the degree to which some of the larger national policy imperatives are prioritized, they are prioritized within a constrained, specific congressional structure that we have to operate within,” said Dana Gresham, DOT’s assistant secretary for government affairs. 

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