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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis May 6, 2011
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Trottenberg Talks Candidly at Transportation Tuesday
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

“Right now, we at DOT face in transportation one of the most challenging times ever—political and fiscal. But we remain optimistic we’re going to get something done.” With that, DOT Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Polly Trottenberg began her presentation to a packed room at the May 3 edition of APTA’s Transportation Tuesdays series.

Noting that the Obama administration is both enthusiastic about and sympathetic to transportation, Trottenberg acknowledged the realities of future funding with the current divided Congress: “We’re going to have some victories; we’re going to have to take some losses. We may want more money, but we note that we’re going to spend it a lot more wisely.” She pointed out that, as part of its current strategy regarding funding, DOT has begun intensive discussions on Capitol Hill.

“We are firmly supporting a six-year [authorization] bill,” she said, adding that “there is a very strong case to be made for it.”
 Trottenberg also discussed high-speed rail, emphasizing that DOT is “very excited” about this program.

Her talk was deliberately brief to allow for an extended Q&A session.

One question focused on the role public-private partnerships might play in decisions regarding discretionary grant funding. Trottenberg said that while many of the proposed projects have revenue streams, “there are really important projects that can’t pay for themselves. We don’t necessarily want to preclude those projects in favor of those that will pay their way.” She added: “In TIGER [grants], we rewarded those projects that had private sector investment. If it helps you win discretionary dollars, that’s a real motivator.”

Another audience member asked if having a national transportation plan would be a help in the debate about funding. Trottenberg said developing such a plan takes months. “Ideally it’s a great idea, but in execution it’s extremely difficult to produce on in a timely way. Events can overtake a plan and it can become stale,” she said.

Some discussion focused on infrastructure and state of good repair. While citing the critical need for funding to bring transit infrastructure where it needs to be, Trottenberg talked about the difficulty in her years on Capitol Hill in gaining appropriators’ support. The thinking was, she said ruefully, “the fun is in the new, not in keeping up the old,” an idea she called “pernicious on the transit side.”

The speaker also examined performance-based models. Trottenberg said DOT is trying to move to that model, but keeps finding data gaps. And for that reason, “it’s going to be a process of some years to get us there,” she said.

She noted the difficulty involved in standardizing such performance measurements as asset management and benefit-cost analyses, and said DOT wants to “democratize these tools so they aren’t expensive and don’t require agencies to spend a lot of money.” She added that, having heard concerns from agencies that performance measurement might become a benchmark for awarding grants, she wanted to assure the audience that “performance measurement is a way to encourage you to measure yourself and learn from your data.”

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