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WTS International Transportation Policy Symposium, Washington, DC


Therese McMillan, Acting Administrator
 Federal Transit Administration 

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you. It’s great to be with you again.

As I travel around the country, I often get the chance to meet with WTS members one-on-one or in small groups and it’s always a pleasure to find out what’s happening on-the-ground first-hand from the extraordinary women who are making it happen.

It’s a pleasure as well to be here today with so many former Secretaries of Transportation who’ve generously shared with us their time, their experience, and their insight.

Today’s topic is both timely and urgent. And whenever you get two or more transportation people in the same room together, it is unavoidable.

I’m often asked: what’s happening with reauthorization? What’s happening with the Highway Trust Fund? What is Congress going to do and when are they going to do it?

Spoiler alert: nobody knows.

That uncertainty can have the same stifling effect on transportation planning as it has on Wall Street.

But it also means that the future is not yet set in stone.

It means that YOU will have a hand in shaping it, and today I want to give you the tools do that.

Portal Bridge

I want to start with a story about a bridge.

Between the towns of Kearny [CARNEY] and Secaucus … in northeast New Jersey … spanning the Hackensack River … is a swing bridge that happens to carry more passenger trains that any other bridge in the entire Western hemisphere.

And it’s over 100 years old.

If you’ve heard of the Portal Bridge before, it was probably because something had gone wrong.

That happens far too frequently, delaying trains up and down the Northeast Corridor for hours.

With a clearance of only 23-feet from the water, the bridge has to open every time a fishing boat or a sludge barge needs to pass by.

Sometimes the bridge doesn’t close properly. Sometimes it doesn’t close at all. Sometimes it catches on fire.

Did I mention? It’s partly wood.

This would all be quaint if the bridge wasn’t only one of the 100,000 bridges in the U.S. that are old enough for Medicare … and if it wasn’t – to repeat – the busiest passenger rail bridge in the Western hemisphere.

Our friends at New Jersey Transit and Amtrak are working on a plan to replace the bridge that’s estimated to cost $900 Million – although the details on how it will get funded haven’t been worked out yet.

I tell you this story because it brings into sharp focus the single question that will most shape the future of transportation in this country.

Now, many people will tell you that the central question is: “How can we afford to make these kinds of investments in transportation?”

But the real question is: “How can we afford not to?”

No one seriously doubts that our infrastructure is in a woeful state of disrepair.

Last fall, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card that gave our bridges a C+, our roads and transit a D, and our levees a D-.

In transit systems nationally, we have an $86 Billion backlog in repairs and replacements that grows by over $2 Billion a year.

So as you go out and speak with your elected leaders, no one’s going to say: “I don’t see how this is a problem.”

What they’re going to say is: “How can we possibly afford to do fix this?”

You will be able to ask, in turn: “How can we afford not to?” … and you’ll have these 4 points to back it up.

Global Competitiveness

First: how can we afford not to, when our global competitiveness is at stake?

America’s prosperity was built, in large part, on abundant resources and the ability to move goods to market.

Today our ideas and our labor are just as important, and transportation remains the backbone of our economy.

Even internet-based businesses like Amazon rely on a highway system that was conceived when computers wouldn’t fit into your house, much less your pocket.

But that infrastructure won’t last forever, and compared to the rest of the world, we’re falling behind.

The U.S. has the largest economy in the world, but right now we rank 28th in infrastructure investment.

European nations, on average, invest 5-percent of GDP in infrastructure; the United States, only half as much.

And as each of you well know, the federal portion has been anything but predictable.

Over the last six years, transportation has been funded through 28 separate short-term measures, including the one that was just passed this summer.

Cities, states, and investors all need more certainty than that if they’re going to break ground on major projects.

That’s why the Obama Administration proposed the GROW AMERICA Act, a four-year surface transportation plan that would invest $302 Billion to increase funding for all modes of transportation.

We must get our infrastructure back into shape – strong and resilient enough to compete in the global arena. That’s the kind of commitment it will take.

But we’re also going to need to put more private funding on the table.

To help do that, the President has started the Build America Investment Initiative to foster partnerships between the public and private sectors.

It’s a government-wide effort that will encourage more innovative financing strategies and make resources like DOT’s credit and loan programs more understandable and accessible.

And across DOT, we’re working to cut red tape and get projects started quicker.

The permitting process for New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge was expected to take up to 5 years. By having the different government agencies do their reviews at the same time, rather than one after another, we were able to get that down to a year-and-a-half.

When you’re already behind, every day – and every dollar – matters.

We need not only to catch up, but the get ahead of our own growth.

By 2050, the U.S. is expected to add nearly 100 Million people. That means our population will increase by almost 1/3 in less than 40 years.

For the transit industry, we’re thinking about how we’re going to be able to move those people from their homes to their jobs and back again safely and efficiently.

For our transportation system as a whole, though, it also means we’re going to have to move more freight – 14 Billion tons more, almost twice what we move now.

As Vice President Biden has pointed out, the productivity of our businesses has a direct relationship to how quickly, cheaply, and often they can get goods to market.

Seaports, rail, airports, and highways are all going to need significant investments to keep freight moving into and out of and around the country.

We will not stay globally competitive unless we maintain and expand that infrastructure.

Economic Development

So that’s the first point. The second is that we cannot afford to lose out on the economic development that’s driven by and focused around transportation investments here at home.

From the perspective of public transportation, we see communities big and small relying on transit investments to not only make travel more efficient and preserve quality of life, but also to spur economic growth.

I like to use the example of Dallas because it often surprises people to learn that a city with such a long-standing love affair with cars – and trucks – now has the most miles of light rail in America.

That’s generated more than $7 Billion in economic activity and tens of thousands of jobs in the last 10 years alone.

Atlanta teaches us another lesson: that it also matters where that kind of investment takes place.

Along the route of its new modern streetcar, there’s more than $745 Million in investment that’s completed, underway, or in planning.

Atlanta’s downtown is home to Fortune 500 companies and major tourist attractions, but also to struggling families and neglected neighborhoods.

By ensuring a minimum amount of affordable housing, the city’s making sure that they’ll benefit from that development, too.

The same promise could hold true for people in Los Angeles and Boston and Detroit and El Paso that are seeing significant new transit projects in their neighborhoods.

Bottomline: if we don’t invest in transportation, our economy may come to a stand-still along with the traffic, and that we cannot afford.

The Cost of Delay

We also cannot afford to forgo those investments because to do so is the very definition of “penny-wise and pound-foolish” – and this is the third point I want to make.

Consider all those bridges I mentioned earlier, the ones that are old enough for Medicare and no closer to retirement.

We will be paying to replace them some day. The question is whether we do it now in a planned way or later in an emergency.

In the meantime, aging transportation infrastructure costs us precious time and the expense of constant repairs.

The Portal Bridge in New Jersey? There’s a maintenance team stationed there 24-7 in case anything goes wrong – which it often does.

In New York, the subway system is even older than the Portal Bridge.

Fortunately it’s been constantly upgraded over the years, but there’s still essential equipment in service today that no one has manufactured in a very long time.

When Hurricane Sandy damaged some of that equipment, New York had to turn to Chicago’s equally-aged system to borrow replacement parts.

Where does Chicago get the parts? They cannibalize existing equipment or they make their own in the machine shop.

As for our highway system, we pay for its disrepair and congestion every day with our time, our health, and the upkeep on our vehicles.

We’re also paying whenever we buy something at a store.

One of the ways retailers and manufacturers have worked to keep costs low is through “just in time” delivery. Having inventory sitting around in warehouses costs money.

Now, major manufacturers like Whirlpool and Caterpillar are having to compensate for the condition of our roads.

They can’t count on “just in time” being “just in time” anymore.

Congestion alone costs shippers $27 Billion a year according to a Texas A&M Transportation Institute study, and those costs get passed along to you and me.

We’re paying for the state of our transportation in innumerable, hidden ways when we could be making wise, strategic investments that benefit us today and tomorrow.

Ladders of Opportunity

Our global competitiveness, continued economic development, and the high cost of delay: these are all good, dollars-and-cents reasons why we cannot afford to forgo these critical investments in our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

And there’s a fourth reason: because transportation provides a ladder of opportunity on every block, in every neighborhood, in every city and town in America.

Within public transit, we’re especially proud of our potential to connect people with jobs, education, healthcare, and everything else their communities have to offer.

According to a 2011 report from the Brookings Institution, the typical person living in one of the country’s major metropolitan areas can reach 30% of the jobs in his or her area within 90 minutes using transit.

There’s two ways to look at that:

ONE: We’re able to help people reach 30% of the jobs in their area.


TWO: 70% of the jobs are only accessible if you want to commute more than 3 hours a day – if they’re accessible by transit at all.

Yesterday, Secretary Foxx was in downtown Los Angeles to help break ground on the Regional Connector, a light rail project that will add new stations to the Metro system and speed commutes.

Two-thirds of the people living in the surrounding neighborhoods don’t have access to a car.

That means if you’re a young person living there, you can go to school, work hard, and still find a lot of opportunities are simply out of reach.

America can do better than that.

When we build and expand high-quality public transportation, we’re widening the circle in which people can find and get to new jobs – ones that help them do better for themselves and their families.

Last week we announced the recipients of $100 Million in competitive grants that are designed to improve bus services and bus facilities in communities where residents depend heavily on public transportation.

The program is named – not coincidentally – the Ladders of Opportunity Initiative, because it will help connect more people to jobs, education, and healthcare.

We were proud to be able to help fund 25 projects in 19 states, but this was also one of the most over-subscribed discretionary grant programs in our agency’s history.

In fact, we received proposals for projects totaling 14-times the amount of funding we had available.

That should tell you that there’s a real pent-up demand for this kind of assistance.

When we’re talking about ladders of opportunity, it’s also important to remember that the transportation industry itself can be a ladder of opportunity – as many of you know first-hand.

The transportation sector employs more than 4.6 Million people in the U.S., not to mention the construction jobs that follow.

Many of these jobs change as technology improves, and that means we must not only invest in infrastructure, but also in our people.

For instance, in the transit industry, new hybrid and all-electric buses require new skills for those who operate and maintain them.

That’s one example of why the GROW AMERICA Act would increase funding for transit workforce development 10-fold to $20 Million a year.

Workforce development initiatives like the WIN program in Denver and a similar effort that’s getting underway in Boston help bring skills and opportunity to local residents who deserve to take part in landmark transit projects.

In that way, long-term investments in transportation create real jobs and build ladders of opportunity in communities big and small.


Of course, developing a strong transportation workforce is what WTS is all about. You, too, are in the “ladders of opportunity” business.

I hope that, in your role as forceful advocates for transportation, you find these four arguments both persuasive and useful tools.

There’s no doubt that we need to invest in transportation; the only doubt is whether we have the will to do so.

There’s time yet for you to provide that will.

Our country can’t afford for you not to.

Thank you.

Updated: Wednesday, March 16, 2016
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