ITE Talks Transportation

US Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg – National Roadway Safety Strategy, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and More

March 22, 2022

BERNIE WAGENBLAST: For 2022 much of the transportation focus is going to be on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President late last year. And earlier this year, USDOT introduced the National Roadway Safety strategy, which lays out actions to reduce the death toll on our nation's highways and streets, including by adopting the safe system approach, which ITE has been championing for many years. Today on the ITE Talks Transportation Podcast, I speak with US Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg about these important initiatives and how they'll impact transportation in the United States. Polly, thank you so much for joining us on ITE Talks transportation.

POLLY TROTTENBERG: Thanks for having me Bernie.

WAGENBLAST: USDOT recently announced the National Roadway Safety strategy, which embraces the safe system approach to reduce roadway fatalities and serious injuries. Now, this is a topic ITE has been championing for some time, and they will point at the department on this announcement. So tell me, why was now the right time for USDOT to make this announcement, and how is this strategy going to impact the USDOT’s efforts to improve safety?

TROTTENBERG: Thanks for the question, Bernie and the timing was driven by a couple of different things. But let let's start with you know what we're seeing on US roadways right now and I think you know, as we are coming out of hopefully coming out of the COVID epidemic, we have not seen a good couple of years in terms of fatalities. We just put out our numbers. It looks like for 2020, nearly 39,000 fatalities on US roadways and you know tragically our predictions for 2021 are going to be even higher. And you know Bernie, we will also seeing and I previously saw in New York City, and we're seeing a lot of major cities around New York and in Washington where I am now unfortunately record breaking fatalities. And you know, as I always say, these are not just numbers, these are family or friends or coworkers, our neighbors our fellow Americans. So we in the Biden administration came in the door asking, what can we do at the national level to really move the needle on what has clearly become a tragic set of trends moving in the wrong direction and look we’re a big agency, we're we have a lot of different stakeholders. So it took us some time, you know, under the the leadership of our great Secretary, Pete Buttigieg to think through what are the authorities we have in each part of our agencies, what do we have in each part of our agency highways, federal motor carriers, you know what are the funding streams? What are the regulatory approaches? What are the partnerships we can form? And then we were very fortunate you know we were working at the same time in tandem on the big Infrastructure Bill.

And so as we were designing the national roadway safety strategy, we were also working in tandem on some of the legislative pieces we usually would want. Some, you know, regulatory and convening authorities and opportunities ordinance for NHTSA, for FMCSA for some real dollars to put towards some of these challenges, particularly program or very excited about the State Street for all programs $6 billion which is going to go directly to localities. A chance to work again and double down with State DOTs and diving into the data so it it sort of became a moment when we're looking at the trends as we were you know still coming out of COVID working on a big reauthorization and bold new infrastructure bill with incredible and resources and then just pulling together within our big department what are all the things we wanted to tackle, and you know you've seen sort of the approach we're taking as you said the safe systems approach you know I think building on some of principles that some of us who came from state and local government, myself included, practice with Vision 0 and a systematic design. Looking at you know how we are sort of not only focusing on engineering but education. In our case we have a lot of regulatory authorities and I think we couldn’t be more excited to sort of really dive in the federal level that I don't think USDOT has ever done before.

WAGENBLAST: As you talk about this strategy, obviously trying to achieve the strategy is going to require buy in at both the state and the local levels, something I think that you can relate to from your previous service in New York City DOT. How do you think USDOT support of state and local agencies on implementing the strategy is going to be effective and what kind of guidance and funding, obviously funding is a big part of it are going to be available to support this plan?

TROTTENBERG: Yeah. No, it's a great question. And I think you will see your team that there's there are several ways that we can have an influence. You mentioned funding and funding is obviously higher on this. You know, one of our major activities as an agency is grant making and you know one thing this the bipartisan infrastructure law has given us is not only a lot of formula funds, but over $200 billion in discretionary dollars where we have, you know, much more of a say, in sort of setting the priorities. And safety is one of the top priorities. And so we are going to have the ability through those programs to I think really incentivize at the state and local level, you know, a number of safety projects and incentivize I think some really hopefully creative approaches. After our grantmaking abilities we're a big regularly agency, and we’re a safety Regulatory agency, you know, bring across all bunch of modes. We’re the biggest regulator in aviation, but we are also clearly through NHTSA and FMCSA a roadway regulatory with a particular focus on vehicle design and on truck safety.

The funding we got in this bill is going to give us, I think, more opportunities to delve deeper into that regulatory practice and there's some things that are mandated in the bill. You know, for example, for NHTSA to look at an interlock, at as some sort of a passive interlock device to cut back on drunken driving. So we have some particular mandates and then some other areas we're going to be pursuing. You know last we have, you know, in addition to the funding and the regulatory authorities, we do have a bully pulpit, and we are fortunate. We have, you know, a fantastic secretary and a lot of great leaders throughout the agency who are very passionate on the topic of roadway safety. I'll put myself in that category, but our Federal Highway administrator Stephanie Polak, our acting FCC administrator, Robin Hutchinson can actually came from being a local DOT commissioner in Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. Steve Cliff, who is our acting NHTSA administrator. So you know, we have just, I think, an extraordinary group of leaders. And I would also say at USDOT we are blessed with an incredible career staff. People who have devoted their whole careers to saving lives on roadways. So with that kind of a team and I think new resources and a new regulatory authority I’m really hoping this this will be a period where we will really start to turn those very tragic trends around on our roadways and you know start to start to maybe join some of our you know some of our European counterparts who have just been so much more successful than we have frankly in reducing roadway fatalities.

WAGENBLAST: You talked about the bully pulpit and Secretary Buttigieg was very visible, especially during the time leading up to the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. How do you see that bully pulpit continuing to be used to try to accomplish some of these very ambitious goals that you're setting out?

TROTTENBERG: You know, I think I would say—so fun to join the administration and work with the Secretary and I’m going to say this about all the secretaries, you know, group that I just think, you know, after many years in government, it's kind of a dazzling group of cabinet secretaries and they are all incredibly powerful communicators, I have a special fondness for my own. But you know I would mention many others, we’ve spent a lot of time working with the Department of Energy and Secretary Granholm and Administrator Regan at EPA and just I think, you know, sort of structure group we have, I think a tremendous set of leaders and you know that has I think helped bring a lot of people in transportation, particularly to follow the debate to be interested. They aren’t necessarily our traditional constituencies, and Bernie you know this you know that there's a certain group of folks that love transportation and follow it deeply. But you know there's a lot of folks that they think of it in terms of day-to-day how they get around but they're not necessarily following what USDOT is doing with the these high level policy issues. And, you know, I think having this high visibility cabinet that they’re such gifted communicators on Twitter, they’re great on late night talk shows. They reach a bunch of audiences that aren’t always tuned into what we're doing.

And I just think that's been tremendous and I think one thing we're hoping is it will really translate into you know, excitement and participation at the local level, you know in the end we’re USDOT and we have all these resources, but we sort of rise and fall on the success of what you know local communities and states are doing on the ground. Are they building good projects, are they building good safety projects, are they making investments, you know, in not only mobility, but you know some of the things that our administration cares about equity: tackling climate change, create jobs. So I think being able to communicate with new generations and some nontraditional audiences. I think we're really hoping it's going to help us achieve some of these big goals.

WAGENBLAST: A little bit on that word that you mentioned just a moment ago in the answer you were talking about equity and how does USDOT intend to build equity into the implementation process as discretionary decisions are made and the funds are distributed?

TROTTENBERG: It's a great question. I have to say I'm very proud to be part of an administration that has this much of a focus on equity really, from the President, the Vice President on down. It really has infused all of this administration since day one, and if you looked at what the administration did right when they, you know, hit the door on day one. You know the president issued a series of executive orders that spoke particularly to equity to what we call justice 40, which is looking at ways to ensure particularly that clean energy investments are benefiting traditionally underserved communities, it has infused…. Even before we passed the big bipartisan infrastructure. It has become a major priority in all our discretionary grant programs. It is become an important priority in how we talk with our grantees, with the state and local DOTs, with all our partners, be they in the aviation sector, be they in the rail sector, the transit sector, you name it, it is also something that we're not just talking the talk with our grantees and our partners, it's something we're also trying to walk the walk on internally, focusing tremendously on, for example, our own hiring and contracting processes to make sure that the USDOT workforce represents what the American population looks like, and that's a challenge in transportation as you know Bernie. It's traditionally been a very male dominated industry, not always so welcoming to people of color. So you know, we know we have more to do in house there. You know, we're also looking at how we spend our own dollars in terms of making sure they're contracting opportunities for women and minority owned businesses and and focusing on that as well as the grant dollars that go out the door. So you know for us this is you know we often talk in the federal government the whole of government approach which means that if we look at every asset and every aspect of what we're doing and every agency’s at the table and I would say when it comes to equity probably more than anything else in this administration we are whole of government.

WAGENBLAST: Circling back to talking about the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, obviously that's a major focus for USDOT this year. I would imagine probably for several years to come. Tell us a little bit more about the administration's perspective on this historic and expansive legislation and how the department is going to be moving forward with implementation. If you would please, Polly.

TROTTENBERG: Well, let me for your listeners who I know are a sophisticated crowd, but just to give a little sort of a little bit of the flavor of what we're doing here, I am someone Bernie, who’s worked in transportation for many years and was on Capitol Hill for many years. My rule of thumb is that this bill represents about 25 years worth of typical transportation legislating that we're implementing in, you know, a period of a few years. So it is a very, very big undertaking. It's going to transform USDOT and some of our sister agencies is like EPA, like Department of Interior, like Department of Energy. So there is a blue transformation that is coming around from these investments. You know it is a big but exciting job to implement. It is the biggest investment in passenger rail in the history of our country, it is the largest investment in mass transit in the history of our country. We’re standing up a whole new EV charging program. So incredible investment opportunities that will I think transform American infrastructure, start to tackle climate change in a serious way and chip away at something that all of us in this bill have talked about, and I know it’s been of interest to the experts at ITE—chipping away at the backlog of just the basic maintenance and repair that is needed for so much of our infrastructure, for bridges for our roadways, for our transit systems, modernizing our ports, you know the possibilities here are very, very exciting. And look, I would just say this Bernie, you can go your whole career waiting for a moment like this legislatively, and just to be USDOT at this moment for me, you know, and it's kind of a dream come true.

WAGENBLAST: Well we have certainly enjoyed this opportunity to chat with you. Uh, you know, it's been a few years. And like I said last time we talked was when you were in New York City CDOT, but certainly great to get an update as to what's going on at USDOT. So much of the focus of what's going on is transportation related in this country. So even people who aren't in the transportation industry, I think are very aware of how so many things are affecting transportation and how transportation has an impact on so much of our lives, so I very much appreciate you taking the time out to the chat with us today.

TROTTENBERG Alright, well, thanks, Bernie. I'll just give you one closing note because you mentioned. You sort of raised something on how transportation affects our lives, and again, I think it is a message that I think we are always trying to send from USDOT and we have a secretary who I think is great at it, which is right. We can throw all these numbers around all these programs but in the end, the exciting part of what we're going to do here is going to help people get to work. We're going to help connect people to jobs and opportunities. We're going to try to reknit neighborhoods that were perhaps torn apart during the interstate era. We’re going to strengthen our supply chain, and we’re going to sometimes focus on very local projects that can have a big impact. We're going to build that bike lane or fix that, that bus route. So just to translate it into things that matter, you know, in our everyday lives that's what this is really going to be about at the end and we're just looking forward to rolling up our sleeves.

WAGENBLAST: We've been talking on this episode of ITE talks Transportation with Polly Trottenberg, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Transportation. Polly again, thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me. Thanks for talking. If you'd like more information about the infrastructure investment and JOBS Act and how it affects it, ITE Members and the transportation industry, please visit


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