Secretary Anthony Foxx
Remarks at National Press Club
” as Prepared for Delivery “
American Highway Users Alliance Press Conference
November 23, 2015
Thank you, Governor Graves. It is great to be here. I especially want to thank Greg Cohen and all the members of the American Highway Users Alliance for putting out this timely report and convening this discussion.
We are approaching a holiday – Thanksgiving – that in many ways is synonymous with going home. Folks are looking forward to seeing friends and family. And if you talk long enough to those who will be traveling, they will share their strategies for avoiding traffic jams – 3 a.m. departures, taking the long way, any number of things to cut down on the time spent bumper to bumper. In fact, more than 47 million Americans will be traveling 50 miles or more from where they live. All of these trips add an extra strain to an already-overburdened transportation system.
Some of the bottlenecks mentioned in today’s report are not all that surprising – Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington are metros with the worst bottlenecks. But some areas are surprising: Austin, Texas ranks 10th for having the worst traffic. Tampa Bay, Florida and Norfolk, Virginia cracked the top 50. This is not a mistake. This is a trend, entirely consistent with the work we’ve done to model future transportation challenges. Road dependent communities in America are going to need multimodal solutions.
This Thanksgiving, America is getting a preview of what we expect to occur over the next 30 years if things continue unchecked – a nation consumed by traffic – Thanksgiving traffic every day in some places. This is not theory; this is fact. And the question is: what are we as a nation going to do about it?
Throughout my tenure as Secretary, I have crisscrossed America, listening to our businesses and our people who are frustrated and feel stuck in traffic. They are hungry for solutions. They can list the projects that will help them.
Over these past two years, we have shined a hot lamp on the problem – political handwringing, using yesterday’s funding levels to solve tomorrow’s challenges, expecting state and local governments to place big bets when the national government won’t make long-term commitments, and applying 20th century policy to a 21st century context.
After years of indecision and 36 short-term extensions, I am encouraged that Congress is finally conferencing on a long-term surface transportation bill. This would be the first long-term bill in a decade. And maybe in the course of tackling a surface transportation bill, our Congress and our people will be reminded, once again, that, while we may differ on issues from time-to-time, we are all part of the same United States of America, bequeathed to us by previous generations and full of the responsibility to pass along an even better country to those who follow us. I am therefore encouraged by the bipartisan effort that is underway.
We find ourselves at the intersection of two realities. One reality is that there is a finite amount of resources this Congress or any Congress can apply to our transportation needs. The other reality is the inconvenient truth that what we might comfortably afford today may not be sufficient for tomorrow’s needs. This second reality should be giving as much weight as the first.
In fact, as Congress looks at offsets, we should factor in the broader impact – such as giving people $39 billion worth of lost time back; or saving 830 million gallons of fuel; or eliminating more than 17 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions; or preventing more than 200,000 crashes. This is what we could do over the next 20 years by fixing these bottlenecks and keeping the country moving.
There are many places where the proposed House and Senate bills align with needs we foresaw in the GROW AMERICA Act. Congress is advancing our proposal to create a dedicated freight program. With a dedicated, competitive program we will be able to clear out freight bottlenecks and keep the wheels of commerce turning. Let me add, though, that we also know freight rail and maritime volume is projected to increase, and therefore we believe that any freight program should be multimodal, which is not something that’s on the table in the negotiations.
Congress is also looking to advance permitting reform and efficient project delivery. Done the right way, this could be a huge game-changer for transportation. Under our proposal, we worked to speed up projects without undercutting the historic and environmental processes that protect our communities, and we encourage Congress to do the same.
We also very much support the efforts to strengthen Buy America. These are just a few areas where there is great alignment between needs we see and those Congress is seeking to address. Important areas of opportunity remain, and let me touch on a couple of them.
First, the funding levels still concern me, and they still should concern Congress. This is a matter of context and results. The context here is that we’ve had a long slew of short-term extensions. These extensions have starved the system and in fact paralyzed it. We aren’t tapping the flywheel here; we’re kind of starting from scratch again. The system needs a powerful injection to get going again. I know how hard it is to increase investment levels – for anything.
But transportation is not an extravagance; it is an investment like paying for college or putting away retirement savings. The good news is that my friends on both the Democratic and Republican side of aisle, for the most part, understand it this way and are moving closer to action. In terms of results, I urge them to think about where their actions take us. If investment levels are raised, they should be raised such that ordinary Americans feel the difference. If, after 36 extensions and so much uncertainty and false starts, Congress passes a bill that still results in worse traffic, we will have missed a great opportunity.
Another area of opportunity is public private partnerships. I am encouraged to see efforts to help the USDOT bring our credit programs under one roof and provide us with greater authorities to help build more P3s. However, our ability to do so will be weakened if the TIFIA loan program is cut and the TIGER program is not authorized.
I said before that the pipeline has been paralyzed by lack of federal funding certain. The TIFIA program has felt this paralysis because the pipeline of loan activity has slowed recently. In MAP-21, Congress put a lot into TIFIA in an environment with no long-term bill.
Now, Congress is on the cusp of cutting the TIFIA program in the presence of a long-term bill, calibrating it to the current environment and not to a more bullish environment. We appreciate efforts to cushion the blow by allowing TIFIA capacity to carry forward but eventually those funds will run out. I would urge increasing the TIFIA program funding. Then there is TIGER, which is an innovative, impactful program that continues to support transformative transportation projects throughout America, yet neither bill authorizes it.
And, last but not least, I remain concerned about whether Congress will use this opportunity to raise the bar on safety or lower it.
We have seen proposals put forward that limit NHTSA’s ability to recall dangerous rental cars. Both versions prevent states from using federal dollars to enforce motorcycle helmet laws, which saved more than 1,600 lives in 2013 alone. The proposals could also hide critical safety data about truck and buses companies from the public. Additionally, they could limit our ability to perform safety inspections of motor coaches. The bill taking shape could also make it more difficult for us to enhance the safety of rail cars carrying crude oil.
Safety is paramount. So what I am asking for is simple: The negotiators should support the requests we put forward in the GROW AMERICA Act. They should support our request for additional authority to protect the traveling public and protect communities.
With that, I want to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. It’s great to be with you.