FHWA Nominee Enjoys Positive Reception at Confirmation Hearing

January 31, 2019

After more than two years without a Federal Highway Administrator, a confirmation hearing was held on Tuesday for former National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Nicole R. Nason to fill the role. These two years have been the longest gap in leadership the Federal Highway Administration has seen in more than 100 years, covering President Trump’s entire time in office. Especially in light of these circumstances, the reactions to Nason filling the vacancy were positive all around.

Along with Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), Ms. Nason was introduced by former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (who also serves on the Eno Board of Directors). Both praised Nason, with Mineta recognizing her as “an accomplished government executive, an experienced transportation leader and an individual with a high degree of personal integrity and character.”

Ms. Nason’s nomination comes at a time when FHWA—which oversees more than 220,000 miles of the national highway system and approximately 145,000 bridges—is grappling with challenges related to highway funding. The FAST Act—the most recent, five-year authorization of the federal highway programs—will expire in September 2020. The Highway Trust Fund is also operating at a deficit and is on its way to becoming insolvent :last year, the Highway Trust Fund paid out $13 billion more than it collected in gas tax revenue. Despite that spending, there is still an estimated $800 billion backlog of funds necessary to improve highways and bridges.

Other challenges facing the agency, as spelled out in the hearing, include finding solutions for differing rural and urban needs; increasing road safety as the number of road fatalities continues to increase; integrating new tools, data, and technology that are disrupting traditional transportation planning; and addressing the ever-growing concerns of climate change and environmental hazards. In all these issues, leadership is needed to find bipartisan solutions.

This will be Nason’s third government position requiring Senate confirmation: As NHTSA administrator, she oversaw significant rulemakings including side impact priorities protection and electronic stability control systems. She also influenced new seat belt rules for school buses and new car seat safety regulations. While working at DOT, Ms. Nason frequently testified before Congress and advocated at the UN in Geneva for harmonizing motor vehicle testing. Her Senate-confirmed job before that was as Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Governmental Affairs.

Nason currently serves as assistant secretary (not subject to Senate confirmation) of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Administration, managing 2,000 employees and contractors.

Nason also served two terms on the national board of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where she promoted highway safety and strict law enforcement. Senator Barrasso quoted MADD’s president, Helen Whitty, as saying, “Nicole is a true champion of highway safety.”

That focus on safety was prevalent at the hearing; Nason mentioned that her past experiences have familiarized her with the grim statistics of motor vehicle fatalities. She noted that, in 2017, there were 37,133 people killed in motor vehicle crashes. To this, she said, “I believe the only acceptable number is zero.” She plans to target safety by improving road design and “engineering better.” She stated, “there is a person and a family behind all the statistics, a reminder that we can and should always strive to do more.”

Together with safety, Nason’s stated goals as FHWA administrator include:

  1. Focusing on safety, particularly pedestrian and cyclist safety.
  2. Working collaboratively with fellow administrators and colleagues at the DOT to eliminate project boundaries.
  3. Getting out of DC and visiting state, local, and tribal partners to hear their concerns and ideas, and find area-specific solutions.
  4. Reauthorization of surface transportation legislation, as the FAST Act will expire at the end of the fiscal year 2020.

The hearing also represented an opportunity for some senators to reiterate their desire to pass an infrastructure bill: the Trump Administration has repeatedly (and very recently) expressed interest in enacting major infrastructure legislation, often cited as one of few areas of potential agreement between President Trump and Democrats in Congress.

“In my view, it is counterintuitive to have left vacant for such a long period of time such an important leadership role in the Federal Highway Administration, an agency with a critical infrastructure mission,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE). “I hope that the President’s nomination of you, Ms. Nason, to be Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration is both evidence that the Trump Administration is aware of these organizational needs, and also a signal that the Administration is ready to work with Congress on reauthorizing our nation’s transportation programs.”

Watch the full confirmation hearing here.

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