In the last decade, the United States has fallen 20 spots in a global ranking of infrastructure quality, according to the World Economic Forum, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx told the Transportation Research Board at the Jan. 15 Chairman’s Luncheon during its 93rd Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. “That puts us behind Barbados,” he told a packed crowd.
“In recent years, we’ve been a nation careening from crisis to crisis, keeping our foot on the brakes of economic growth, and creating uncertainty—all centering around one issue: the deficit,” Foxx said. “We’ve devoted so much attention to budget and fiscal deficits that we haven’t taken into account another deficit—the infrastructure deficit.” As evidence, he pointed to $86 billion in backlogged transit maintenance and 100,000 bridges that are “old enough for Medicare.”
Closing the infrastructure gap—one of five priorities Foxx outlined—would also create jobs. “Fixing those roads and bridges and transit systems and rail systems will put people back to work,” he said, adding that the absence of a long-term surface reauthorization bill hampers progress.
“To the extent that we’ve been able to address funding, it has been short-term and, from the perspective of state and local governments—a group that I know pretty well—too unpredictable to make long-range plans or long-term investments,” he said.
“That’s why one of my priorities is to work on a bipartisan basis with Congress to show that the most fiscally responsible path forward is to create sustainable investment in infrastructure now. We need a surface transportation reauthorization bill that helps us look beyond our noses, and we need one for rail too.”
His four additional priorities follow:
Funding. The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) “will start bouncing checks as soon as August,” Foxx warned, announcing the addition of a “ticker” to the DOT website that tracks how much money remains in the HTF and the Mass Transit Account. (See end of this story.)
“This is a number we share with Congress,” Foxx explained. “But the American people need to know it, too, because they are the ones who use America’s transportation system—and they are the ones who will travel slower and less safely if it isn’t funded. I’m optimistic that it will be, though. There are signs that Congress will act.”
Efficiency. Even if Congress replenishes the HTF, the nation would still have an infrastructure deficit, Foxx noted.
“If we’re going to tackle our backlog of repairing and rebuilding, then there’s another part of the equation we have to tackle, too—and that’s cost,” he said. “What if we could make that funding equal more projects—and better ones?”
Foxx cited DOT innovations that have allowed faster completion of projects, save money that could finance other efforts, and increase predictability. “When we do that, we automatically create a better ecosystem for public-private partnerships.”
A national vision for transportation. The secretary talked about the necessity of bringing together the various modes of transportation: “Our transportation system should be greater than the sum of its parts.” He continued: “If we’re going to build a better system, we’re going to have to tell the story of what our nation can achieve…and to do so, we all have to use the facts and shape an integrated strategy for where we’re headed, not just where we’ve been. After all, that’s how people experience transportation—integrated, interconnected.”
Safety. Foxx said safety is DOT’s “constant priority” and noted the department’s efforts against distracted driving and to ensure that only safe, legal bus companies are on the road, among other initiatives. “This is the safest time to travel in the history of traveling,” he noted. “And as secretary, I’m committed to keeping up that standard.”
Photo by Mitchell Wood