At TRB, USDOT Downplays Infrastructure Bill, Emphasizes Agency Actions

January 12, 2018

In the absence of the Trump Administration’s promised-but-long-delayed $1 trillion infrastructure package (which still may be released ahead of Trump’s first State of the Union address on January 30), the U.S. Department of Transportation is taking a strategic pivot to focus on steps that the Administration can take on its own to repair and expand the nation’s infrastructure.

This was the takeaway from a keynote by James Ray, Senior Advisor for Infrastructure in the office of the USDOT Secretary at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting this week.

“It’s concerning to me that people have focused so much on this initiative,” he said, referring to the as-yet unreleased infrastructure bill. “There are things that we can do ourselves.”

Indeed, cutting red tape and reducing burdensome permitting requirements has been one of the priorities of the Administration in the year since Trump took office. Ray argued that these initiatives, such as Trump’s two-for-one rule – in which two regulations are repealed for every one that is created – would help to accelerate the execution of infrastructure projects.

“We can do more with less,” he said. “I am convinced of it.”

Shortly after being sworn in, Trump signed Executive Order 13766, which established a new process for accelerating infrastructure project reviews and approvals. This was followed by another E.O. on August 15 since, as ETW explains here, the original one did not consider the major statutory permitting reforms established by title 41 of the FAST Act.

This all contributes to the Trump Administration’s push to align environmental reviews and permitting into a single process, through the “One Federal Decision” plan enshrined in the E.O. on August 15. Ray contended that this would help USDOT to “accomplish regulatory commitments and goals in a way that is not burdensome to the American economy.”

And despite the political turbulence elsewhere, Ray attested to President Trump’s commitment to repairing and expanding the nation’s infrastructure network. “The president is a builder,” he said, noting that he could not remember any time in the past when infrastructure was such an important and frequent discussion topic in Washington.

Ray explained that his position as Senior Advisor for Infrastructure in the Transportation Secretary’s office had never existed before. In this role, he works with every modal administration on improving and expanding the nation’s infrastructure. Similarly, he said, the position held by D.J. Gribbin in the White House National Economic Council as an advisor dedicated to infrastructure did not exist before.

“I want you to understand how serious and how far up the chain infrastructure goes for the Administration,” said Ray.

But infrastructure is not the only priority for USDOT.

Ray appeared before the TRB Annual Meeting, which attracted around 15,000 stakeholders and leaders in the transportation industry, in lieu of Secretary Chao. Around the same time, Chao appeared instead at the well-publicized Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to make a major announcement about USDOT’s work on automated vehicles (AVs) and drones.

Ray stated that USDOT is “working diligently” on the next iteration of its AV policy, dubbed 3.0, which will guide the implementation of automation technology in passenger vehicles, heavy-duty trucks, and buses (see ETW’s deep-dive into 3.0 here). This is accompanied by its work to accelerate the implementation of drones for commercial applications like deliveries and infrastructure inspections.

Before closing, Ray showed a video from 1958 that imagined transportation networks of the future – including some innovations that are approaching maturity today and many that are now viewed as far from maturity or purely impractical. For your entertainment, it is included below.


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