State department of transportation executives stressed at a March 13 House of Representatives Highways and Transit Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill that the current mix of formula funding and grants should be retained by Congress as legislators begin tackling surface transportation reauthorization efforts.
“We urge that you retain the current highway and transit program framework [that] includes retaining the current Mass Transit Account within the Highway Trust Fund and retaining relative distributions,” stressed Roger Millar, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, in his oral comments. “Additionally, we strongly recommend that federal funds continue to be provided through the existing formula-based program structure directly to states.”
Millar (at right) noted in his written testimony that the federal surface transportation program’s “inherent flexibility” defers project selection and investment decision-making to state and local governments. “And these important decisions are based on extensive public input from local communities and businesses to address their unique needs and ensure goods get access to a larger market than ever before,” he stated. “Formula programs remain the optimal approach to serve all corners of our country, improving mobility and quality of life in urban, suburban, and rural areas.”
In his oral remarks, Millar also stressed that improving transportation project delivery via a variety of avenues remains critical to as both a cost- and time-saving measure.
“States are eager to find ways to improve the delivery of projects to save time and money, while properly engaging diverse stakeholders and protecting the environment,” he explained. “As you know, NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] is not a permit; rather it is a broad, transparent environmental review and decision-making process. Each state DOT has its own experience [but] I can tell you that some other states believe the NEPA process still takes too long and is too costly.”
[Editor’s note: The USDOT issued a final rule last year to help streamline the NEPA process.]
Millar noted several other pressing transportation issues in his testimony before the committee:
Federal programs should support state DOTs that take innovative approaches to improve mobility. That includes work on developing automated transportation, addressing the relationship between transportation and land use, providing a more “complete suite” of multimodal transportation choices, and making “targeted investments” in roadway capacity.
WSDOT said it uses managed lanes and congestion pricing where appropriate to “improve mobility,” while investing in ramp meters and variable speed limit signs help squeeze more capacity out of our existing roadways.
The need for a “well-trained and diverse” transportation workforce is becoming more acute. For example, WSDOT expects to lose a significant number of employees through retirement in the next five years, including 31 percent of its maintenance staff and 41 percent of its engineers
“We also have a significant gap in the available workforce for our contractor and consultant partners,” he stressed. “State DOTs can’t deliver our programs without qualified personnel. [So] Congress should continue to support important programs like STEM [Science-Technology-Math-Engineering] education, On-the-Job-Training Supportive Services, and Disadvantage Business Enterprise Supportive Services.”
Darran Anderson, director of strategy and innovation for Texas Department of Transportation, also testified before the subcommittee on March 13 and he emphasized the need to keep the current State Transportation Block Grant Program or STBGP in place.
“That provides funding eligibility for advanced mobility improvements to include data infrastructure and analysis, smart mobility improvements such as smart truck parking, smart work zones, smart pavements, mobility-on-demand platforms, smart fleet, and alternative vehicle charging infrastructure,” he noted in his written comments.
Anderson added that when public entities apply for such “discretionary grants,” such as the Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technology Development grant with private sector partners, he believes state DOTs “would like to have our partners recognized by the Federal Highway Administration as sole source contractors for the purposes of the grant, if awarded.”
That’s because “it is extremely difficult to bring in a private partner during the application process if they will later need to competitively bid to be part of the project,” Anderson stressed. As a result, the “current approach stymies, rather than promotes” the use of public-private partnerships or P3s, he said.
“As we usher in the next generation of technologies, a paradigm shift has already begun in transportation,” Anderson added. “[That’s why] an entrepreneurial approach is needed for Texas to take a leadership position, enabling our state to support a 21st century workforce and to continue attracting and growing businesses.”