March 6, 2017 2:00 AM, EST

Chao Extols Private Funding of Infrastructure Repairs

Pete Marovich/Bloomberg News

This story appears in the March 6 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Transportation will hasten national rebuilding through regulatory reform, revamped grant programs and more private investment in infrastructure, the head of the agency told state and other transportation officials meeting here.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials on March 1 that the nation is at a tipping point.

“Business as usual is no longer an option,” Chao said. “I think everyone can agree that our country can no longer afford to take decades to build a new bridge, highway or airport.”

She asked attendees: “What are the obstacles standing in the way of timelier project delivery? Are there processes that could be streamlined? Are we implementing fully recent changes in the FAST Act that allow more flexibility in environmental reviews, permitting and project delivery?”

Many innovative financing tools are available, such as public-private partnerships, that can be more fully utilized, Chao continued before admonishing: “Barriers that hamper our ability to tap the full potential of public-private partnerships need to be removed.”

She also praised the private sector for leading the development of automated cars, which she noted can expand transportation options for the elderly and disabled and likely vastly reduce the number of traffic deaths. Chao said that the administration is re-evaluating the automated vehicles policy that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued last September.

“There’s a lot at stake in getting this technology right,” said Chao, who also noted the role of drones in delivering goods and in monitoring the safety of rail lines and pipelines. “The federal role in this emerging technology is still in its infancy. We want to work with you to ensure that the federal government is a catalyst for safe, effective technologies, not an impediment.”

Without getting specific, Chao said DOT likely will revisit a number of proposed and final rulemakings to further streamline project delivery and reduce unnecessary administrative burdens.

“We must ensure that regulatory decisions are rooted in analysis derived from sound science and data,” she said, adding they also should include the costs and benefits of new rulemakings.

With a replacement for former Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration chief Scott Darling yet to be named, Chao didn’t mention trucking in her 15-minute speech. However, she did acknowledge the impact of the nation’s failing infrastructure on the bottom lines of such businesses as trucking as well as consumers.

“Businesses employing millions of workers are losing their competitive edge because our country’s infrastructure can’t accommodate their logistical systems,” Chao said. “That means more supply chain disruptions and inventories that languish longer than necessary in warehouses. That adds unnecessary costs to the bottom line and drives up the cost of goods and services.”

Chao, who previously served as a deputy at DOT under President George H.W. Bush and as secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, spoke in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol less than 24 hours after President Trump reiterated to a joint session of Congress his intention to devote $1 trillion over the next decade to bolstering America’s failing infrastructure. Calling the AASHTO audience “front-line warriors” in charge of building, maintaining and repairing transportation infrastructure, she recognized the nation’s network of roads, bridges, ports and the like for providing millions of jobs as well as “unprecedented mobility, safety and security.”

Still, the positive aspects, she said, are “jeopardized by infrastructure in need of repair, the specter of rising highway fatalities, growing congestion and by a failure to keep pace with emerging technologies.”