An Agenda for Highways and Bridges for a 21st Century Transportation Secretary

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Pete Buttigieg, former mayor, DNC chair candidate, presidential candidate and current bestselling author, added a new title to his list of accolades last week: Secretary-designate of Transportation. As a supporter of Buttigieg since his DNC chair run in 2018, and as a transportation professional, this is the best scenario I could have possibly imagined short of Buttigieg winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have made it clear that the focus of their administration will be to “build back better.” The announcement for Buttigieg, a rare solo affair with a more typical rollout consisting of multiple Cabinet members at once for Biden, showed that he will be at the center of Biden’s agenda, just as the President-elect had promised when he said his presidency would be “Pete and me” in a social media campaign ad.

The role of Transportation Secretary in a presidential administration has been a relatively small one though, since the position and Department of Transportation were established in 1966 by Congress during the administration of President Johnson. However, the role of Commerce Secretary was also small, until Herbert Hoover was appointed to the role under President Harding in 1920 and then President Coolidge and expanded the powers and elevated the position of the office. Like Buttigieg, Hoover had also unsuccessfully sought the presidential nomination for the election prior to his appointment by his opponent.

Hoover, though a Republican, was also seen as a “progressive” especially with his time as the “food czar” for the United States leading the Food Administration during World War I and then the American Relief Administration after the war, both under President Wilson. Both efforts fed millions in Western and Eastern Europe including Russia, which was quite controversial.

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As Commerce Secretary, Hoover was instrumental in establishing regulations for both radio and air travel — two new developments in the 20th century, and formed a new Bureau, the Bureau of Standards to oversee the standardization of tools, materials and parts for one hundred industries. He also directed disaster response and relief efforts in 1927 for the Mississippi River flooding. This was a clear expansion of the former duties of the office, and the leadership he showed in these efforts vaulted him to national prominence as well as the Republican nomination and presidency in 1928.

There is no doubt that Hoover’s increasing conservative nature and lack of wanting government intervention runs counter to Buttigieg’s philosophy, and also led to the downfall of his presidency. However, the potential similar expansion of the Cabinet Secretary role due to national exposure and lack of prior oversight in new and developing technologies, is a worthy comparison.

With multiple Cabinet positions and Departments already established after Hoover to fill those former expanded roles though, Secretary-designate Buttigieg won’t be able to have the same areas of influence. However, there is still much to oversee in the 11 administrations of the Department of Transportation — air travel, rail, ports, transit, highways and bridges, vehicle safety, motor carrier safety, and pipelines and hazardous materials to name a few.

Given the oversight necessary for all those areas, there will be a large agenda for the incoming Secretary when he takes over. However there are some key initiatives that should be at the top of any agenda to “build back better.” I believe successes with these initiatives, could cause similar national prominence for Buttigieg that Hoover was able to use to propel his political career, while improving the lives of millions of Americans.

I’ll go over what I think should be the top five priorities that affect the areas I know best — highways and bridges.

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Image by M.O. Stevens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it’s true the country needs a reauthorization for transportation funding unlike any we have seen before, and potentially a separate stimulus effort similar to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, the consistent bailing out of the Highway Trust Fund with the General Fund since the George W. Bush presidency needs to come to an end. As I’ve written in a previous story, the tax of motor fuel known as the “gas tax” is now obsolete and has been for many years. With the continued increase in vehicle fuel efficiency (although slowed by President Trump), and the increase in hybrid electric and electric vehicles, the buying power of gas tax funding will only continue to decrease. Also, in 2019, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a 1 cent increase in the gas tax, though boosting revenue by $1.8 billion in 2020, would only yield an extra $1.7 billion by 2029 and keep falling thereafter. Therefore, a sustainable solution needs to be found.

Secretary-designate Buttigieg had such a solution in his campaign for President — adopting a user fees for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) model to collect revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. While still relatively unpopular in the United States, and with perceptions about privacy, and the need for equity, VMT user fees are clearly the future as they capture revenue from all motor vehicle users. As I’ve also written previously, Oregon and California are already piloting user fees for thousands of drivers, and in 2019 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) awarded $10.2 million to seven states to lead efforts to study user fees. The public is well aware of the method, but there has never been a concerted campaign to “sell” the idea from any administration.

President-elect Biden didn’t have a specific solution for funding in his campaign, so with his Secretary-designate favoring this method, it has a chance to actually gain some traction, especially with Buttigieg as the face and voice of a VMT user fee initiative in various media. As he did during his campaign for President, and as a surrogate for Biden, Buttigieg can make the case effectively to the American people, no matter what political affiliation they may have, and could cause Congress to feel pressure from their constituents to finally authorize the beginning stages of implementing this method as the future of transportation funding.

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Image by Andrew Van Huss, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

While President-elect Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, it should be noted that the last reauthorization, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was only for $305 billion over 5 years. While there is plenty of work to be done and jobs to be created, it will also take some time to scale up and train the workforce as well as develop projects to spend the massive amount of money on.

Therefore, any expenditure of this magnitude needs to be spread out over many years — perhaps an unprecedented 10 years for a reauthorization bill — in order for State DOTs, municipal and country agencies, and private contractors to keep up with the workload with existing resources while hiring on and training the additional workforce, and acquiring equipment and materials. It should also be noted that President Trump’s failed idea of $200 billion in federal investment for infrastructure with a supposed $800 billion private funding match, was also spread out over a 10-year period.

One of the major critiques I had of the ARRA (as well as the current BUILD grants) is that money had to be spent in a certain timeframe or it was no longer available to states. This forced state DOTs, many who in the time of the ARRA were already short personnel due to the economic downturn with hiring freezes and layoffs, to have to overwhelm their existing workforce as well as hire out a majority of the development work to the private sector just to spend the money. This was not and still is not an efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Highway and bridge projects may have been put on a list as “shovel-ready” for the ARRA, but this term grew to be a more of an ideal than a reality. As most may know, expediency with quality is also a challenging goal to achieve and projects and taxpayer dollars are better served if there is enough time built in for regular oversight and review, and also if the majority of those projects are being developed by public sector staff.

A second ARRA-like effort may still occur, but a reauthorization should be where the majority of the money is spent to build the larger and more impactful highway and bridge projects that America needs to truly build back better, and to maximize taxpayer investment.

Any reauthorization effort or stimulus must also address the backlog of critical road repairs and specifically address the 47,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States as Buttigieg’s campaign plan did. Buttigieg planned to reduce both by 50% by 2030, and this seems like a reasonable goal given the planned funding level.

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The United States lags behind most of its European peers in not only infrastructure, but also highway safety. The World Health Organization (WHO)reported nearly 40,000 fatalities on America’s roads in 2016 with 12.8 deaths occurring per 100,000 people. That is more than double the rate of the United Kingdom (5.4), France (5.5) and Italy (5.6), and triple that of Germany (4.1), Spain (4.1) and the Netherlands (3.8). Needless to say we can and must do much better to save more lives.

Vison Zero, as I wrote about previously, is a vision of zero highway deaths for all users— vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. The target date has varied based on implementation of the idea that was first conceived in Sweden in the 1990s. While no country has been able to completely eliminate highway deaths, many have seen significant declines in their fatality rate since implementation.

For example, Sweden’s highway fatality rate per 100,000 was 2.7 in 2016, and they have reduced their highway deaths from 541 in 1997 to 270 in 2016. Now those statistics have remained fairly stagnant until 2019 when the rate dropped to 2.1 with 221 deaths, and that decline has also occurred with increasing traffic volumes. Seeing that there is still more to be done, Sweden has revised their goal from zero deaths in 2020 to 2050.

The National Safety Council has also set a date of 2050 for their version of Vision Zero, but the Safety Council is just a non-profit advocate and has no federal authority. States and municipalities have taken on their own initiatives for Vision Zero in absence of federal leadership, and have seen positive results though not anywhere close to zero. Just as they lack federal funding for other transportation initiatives, states and cities can only do so much with the resources they have.

Secretary-designate Buttigieg had called for adopting Vision Zero in his campaign’s plan to reduce highway deaths, including those of pedestrians which had climbed to 6000 in 2018. He planned to achieve this by increasing funding for existing programs such as what is now the Surface Grant Block Transportation Program (formerly the Transportation Alternatives Program) to create more sidewalks, shared use paths, crosswalks and bike lanes, incentivizing states and municipalities to provide safe roads and retrofit others for all users, providing more funding to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and FHWA to research methods to and address unsafe driving behavior such as distracted driving. He also correctly had focused on rural road safety, as rural roads have had 50% of highway fatalities and are twice as deadly as urban roads.

Again, with the absence of a previously detailed plan from Biden’s campaign, Buttigieg has the opportunity to adopt Vision Zero for his Federal Highway Administration and join the many other countries that have formerly adopted this goal and have allocated resources in attempt to achieve it. Zero deaths may never be a reality in the United States with the size of our population and massive highway and street network, but that doesn’t mean that more lives can’t be saved with a nationalized effort to attempt to get there.

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Image by Sbettin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll admit as a roundabout advocate, I thought this would be higher on the list when I first started writing this story, but the other three were far more important to the overall effort to repair and modernize our infrastructure while keeping people safe. However, roundabouts are a key method to do both.

Roundabouts are not a new idea as they have existed since the 1960s in Europe and since the late 1990s in the United States, yet they are still seen as an “innovative” intersection by FHWA and as an alternative to a traffic signal.

The traffic signal was no longer seen as “innovative” in the 1930s and 1940s and after arriving in America at the turn of the 20th century with the first electric signal installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914. We are now past that point with roundabouts, yet there is no universal recognition and there are still many stakeholders, especially residents of a community who are apprehensive and skeptical of roundabouts compared to a signal which they almost always support as a solution.

Indeed, traffic signals are literally everywhere both as parts of national infrastructure, but also in society — in television shows, books, media, toys etc. One of the first things most young children learn is “stop and go” with red and green lights. Roundabouts have still yet to see the same societal integration, with the most famous examples being in a scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation or the many viral video clips of errant vehicles launching over the central island — neither good examples of the true operations or benefits of roundabouts.

Roundabouts may not be everywhere, but they are in all 50 states with several roundabouts in the vast majority of states. The United States is estimated to have about 7000 roundabouts. That number may sound high, but when compared to the United Kingdom (10,000), France (30,000 to 50,000) with the size of the United States’ road network, we should have a number much higher considering our number of traffic signals is over 300,000.

While traffic signals are also part of any driver education curriculum, I was only able to find six states that had roundabouts as part of their mandated driver education curriculum as of 2018. Formal driver education itself is only required in 32 states for licensure, so there is already a disadvantage for users to learn about roundabouts compared to a traffic signal, which a user has already vast knowledge of before they even reach their teenage years.

I’ve written in two previous stories (here and here) that roundabouts not only significantly reduce injury and fatal crashes for vehicles and pedestrians when compared to a signalized intersection, but they also significantly reduce emissions and fuel consumption, provide for green space, are resilient to severe climate events which cause extended power outages (rendering signals inoperative), and are excellent solutions to reduce distracted driving and red light running. Yet we continue to lag behind most of the world in their implementation, favoring traffic signals instead.

Cost is seen a major factor, but with the reduction in the severity of crashes, roundabouts also pay for themselves in the long run compared to the traffic signal, which does not provide the same level of safety even though it has been universally implemented and accepted due to its familiarity. The total costs to society of a fatal crash were found to be around $1.4 million according to a 2015 NHTSA study, and roundabouts reduce these crashes by 90–100% compared to a signalized intersection, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. Roundabouts also do not experience the costs of a regular maintenance cycle for equipment, nor will they become obsolete and need to be totally replaced due to changes in technology. They are already autonomous vehicle-ready, as vehicles will be able to use vehicle-to-vehicle communication for operations.

As a mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg implemented multiple roundabouts as part of his Smart Streets initiative to transform the city into a more livable and safe community for all users. He said in his opening address to the Road School at Purdue University in 2018 that while he wasn’t a “roundabout fundamentalist,” he clearly understood the benefits of a “well-placed roundabout,” and he also saw the lack of education of their use as a barrier to acceptance. As the incoming Transportation Secretary, Buttigieg can advocate a similar view to the same media universe he has had access to during and after his presidential campaign and break down that educational barrier.

Secretary-designate Buttigieg may not be the “Roundabout President” (yet) as I had hoped, but that doesn’t mean he can’t take roundabouts to a new level of national recognition to become a conventional type of intersection for FHWA, and to at least have as much acceptance as traffic signals among the majority of Americans. That eventual acceptance will be a major barrier lifted to increase their implementation across the country and potentially thousands more lives per year and billions of dollars saved and a cleaner environment as a result.

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Image by dwightsghost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Uniform Vehicle Code was first established in 1926, by none other than Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover. The Code was established to provide a recommended set of traffic laws for states to implement to provide universal operations and enforcement. It has been updated many times since its initial establishment, but was last updated in 2000.

The National Committee for Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO) was made to be responsible for updating the Code in 1948, however this committee went on hiatus due to a lack of funding in 2000. The duties of updating the Code have now been passed to the National Committee for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), and while a draft update was proposed in 2015, no formal update has actually been issued by the Committee.

The year 2000 also happened to be right at the start of the implementation of roundabouts across the United States. Since there have been no updates, the vast majority of states are trying to use non-roundabout specific language from the previous updates of the Code to enforce operations at the majority of roundabouts. In 2018, I was able to find only eleven states that mentioned roundabouts in their motor vehicle operation laws, and there were numerous inconsistencies between them. Since the purpose of the Uniform Vehicle Code was to standardize operations for easy recognition and enforcement of proper operations, these inconsistencies have now introduced confusion both among users and law enforcement for roundabouts.

This confusion also contributes to the lack of safety, as improper operations at roundabouts have had unnecessary crashes occur and that has contributed to the limit their implementation which has led to less safe alternatives such as signals. Thus, given the increasing popularity of roundabouts since 2000 as well as other traffic control developments such as diverging diamond interchanges, an updated Code is critical to reestablishing a universal standard to eliminate any confusion and increase user safety. Whether that’s reconvening the NCULTO or actually having the NCUTCD develop an update, action must be taken soon, and Secretary-designate Buttigieg can advocate for this to happen.

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Image by Maksym Kozlenko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are other initiatives to pursue such as providing research dollars for green materials for road building as I discussed in a previous story. Asphalt, while utilized in recycling treatments, is not a material that will allow the United States to divest of fossil fuel use. It also is not environmentally friendly to produce or construct, and yet it is currently utilized for 94% of our roads. Concrete, as an alternative also has an extremely large carbon footprint and consumes mass amounts of water. While roads made out of recycled plastic are being explored in other countries, simply not enough research is being done in the United States to figure out sustainable, environment friendly and climate neutral alternatives.

We may be able to say “we don’t need roads” at some point as Dr. Emmett Brown stated in Back to the Future, but we are well past 2015, and it looks like we will still be driving, not flying our vehicles for the foreseeable future. Therefore, more resources must be devoted to this effort if we are to truly eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels and pursue our climate change initiatives.

All Department initiatives will also need to combat racial inequity as well as address climate change with a focus on resiliency. These two themes will run all the way through the Biden-Harris administration and the Department of Transportation is where some major accomplishments for each can be made.

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Image by AgnosticPreachersKid, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like Herbert Hoover, Pete Buttigieg has the opportunity to champion and be the visible face of all these efforts I listed to expand the role and influence of his position. The quality and safety of our roads and bridges has also never had this great of an opportunity for improvement since the Department was established during the Johnson administration. The American public as well as Congress have a desire to get something done to start to recover from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, and infrastructure spending is a proven catalyst to economic recovery in American history.

While the list of initiatives for his Department remains long and the challenges to successfully achieve them seems daunting, Buttigieg has achieved what seemed like daunting tasks before. He rebuilt his “dying city” of South Bend and won the Iowa Caucuses as an unknown, small town, LGBTQ, millennial mayor.

His experience transforming South Bend, with a willingness to pursue innovation sometimes seen as radical, and a natural ability to communicate in simple terms to the vast majority of Americans, makes him ready to take on this challenging work of our next Transportation Secretary.

I look forward with great anticipation to see how a Secretary Buttigieg will be able to implement these initiatives as well as others, and realize the mission of the Biden-Harris administration to “build back better” in the years to come.

Oregon Trail generation progressive, licensed professional engineer, advocate of roundabouts, transportation funding reform and member of organized labor.

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