July 11, 2014
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Reports from DOT Secretary and FTA Deputy Administrator

States Feel Pinch as Highway Trust Fund Shortfall Threatens

Last week, I swung through three states in two days, hopping from Kentucky to Rhode Island and then down the I-95 corridor to Connecticut.

Drivers in these states, like drivers in so many others, know their roads and bridges are in need of investment. In Kentucky, almost a third of the roads are rated in poor or mediocre condition. And in Connecticut and Rhode Island, close to three-quarters of the bridges are structurally obsolete. Twenty-mile backups on I-95 are all too common in those states.

I wish I could say I was visiting those states to offer help, asking their governors, “What more can the federal government do? Where can we invest more in your bridges? How about your roads? Your transit systems?”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to ask those questions.

Due to inaction in Congress, I was forced to deliver an entirely different message: “Soon, you won’t be receiving more transportation funding—you’ll be receiving less.”

If you’ve been reading this blog during the past year, you know that our Highway Trust Fund is on its way to insolvency—and you might have heard that last week our department announced the steps we’ll have to take when the fund drops below a safe level in early August.

For all states—including Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Kentucky—this means we’ll have to stop reimbursing them as they send in their bills for transportation projects. Instead, we’ll begin a new process of slower and lower payments. . . .

The approach we’re taking is a fair way to distribute whatever’s left in the Highway Trust Fund. But that doesn’t mean it‘s a good one. There isn’t a “good” option in this situation, and on average, states will see a 28 percent cut in their federal highway funding.

Even worse, it might take years, even decades, to feel the full damage of insolvency. If states don’t know if federal funding will be available—or how much—they’ll start to pull projects off the books and halt construction.

This weekend, the Mississippi DOT announced that, “In the event Congress does not add revenue to the Highway Trust Fund, it will be necessary to pull all state-funded maintenance projects open for bid in July.”

And Missouri has already stopped tackling projects that add capacity and help us prepare for a more populous nation that ships more goods. This means that, two generations down the line—when America is home to 100 million more people and has to move twice the amount of freight—there won’t be enough good routes of transportation to do it. In other words, when our grandkids are stuck in day-long traffic jams and stuck with an economy that can’t deliver the goods, they’ll be blaming us.

Unless Congress acts now.

The GROW AMERICA Act we sent to Capitol Hill in May is still on the table. And other bills have been proposed. If Congress passes a sound transportation bill, we won’t just avoid an insolvent Highway Trust Fund; we’ll grow the fund and be able to help not just ­Connecticut, Rhode Island, and ­Kentucky, but all of America fully prepare for our future.

FTA’s Transit Safety Office Celebrates Productive First Year
BY THERESE MCMILLAN, FTA Deputy Administrator

At DOT, safety has always been our first priority, but it wasn’t until two years ago that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was finally granted the authority to oversee the safety of all of America’s individual public transportation systems. While NHTSA oversees all of the nation’s cars, and FHWA ensures the safety of your roads and bridges, there was no federal role when it came to the nation’s subways, intercity buses, and other forms of public transit until 2012.

We got to work right away. One of the agency’s first steps in establishing our authority was to set up a new Office of Transit Safety and Oversight (TSO), which marked its first birthday last week. . . . 

In its first year, TSO has been working hard to put in place the policies and skilled team needed to help make a safe mode of travel even safer.

For example, we helped develop a safety publication that allowed transit industry stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on upcoming rules as early in the process as possible.

And, because TSO will be relying on state-based organizations to conduct much of the day-to-day oversight of local transit systems, we also created a certification program to help these organizations prepare for that role. We also gave them more than $44 million to ensure they could afford the training and tools needed to carry out proper inspections.

Our staff have also begun conducting accident investigations—participating in three of them in this first year—and issued three safety advisories to help keep transit riders and employees safe.

These are just some of the activities going on in TSO that have helped advance FTA’s mission to keep transit safe and reliable. Of course, there’s more work to be done, including strengthening the agency’s oversight authority through the administration’s GROW AMERICA Act.

Standing up a new office with such important responsibilities is no easy task, but Associate Administrator Tom Littleton and his team have been—and remain—up to the challenge; the men and women working in our now one-year-old Office of Transit Safety and Oversight deserve a hearty “congratulations” on the occasion of this exciting anniversary.

It’s been a productive first year, and we at TSO look forward to many more.

Both of these articles were originally published on DOT’s official blog, Fast Lane. Foxx’s article appeared on July 7 and McMillan’s appeared on July 1. Find details here.

This "Commentary" section features different points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes and views that affect public transportation.
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