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The influential American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials told the federal government it should be “supporting states” rather than creating new processes to manage them.
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The state transportation officials weren’t as scathing in their recent criticisms of the Biden administration’s plans for new highway money as a group of Republican governors were. Perhaps that’s because, as the agencies that decide how the money is spent, they don’t need to be.
But they made clear that they want as little interference from Washington as possible.
“A one-size-fits-all approach would create unnecessary gaps and conflicts in meeting the various transportation challenges in each state,” Shawn Wilson, Louisiana’s secretary of transportation and development, wrote in a letter to Biden transportation officials.
Hello and welcome back to Route Fifty's Infrastructure Update, I’m Dan Vock. This week we’re looking at a letter sent last week by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, an influential group of state agencies, to the Biden administration about its handling of new money included in the president’s signature infrastructure law.
The state agencies have plenty of legal authority to pursue their own goals for transportation spending, no matter what officials in Washington are pushing. Unlike elected officials, though, state agencies have little to gain from a public spat with the federal government, especially when that government is in the process of handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation funding.
The federal government would be better off “supporting states” than setting up new processes to manage them, wrote Wilson, AASHTO’s president.
That would help maintain public support for the law, he said. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was largely crafted by a group of Democratic and Republican senators, and lawmakers of both parties supported it.
“Given the outsized public expectations, these much-needed programs and projects must be advanced expeditiously. For this to occur we must work together and utilize existing planning processes,” Wilson wrote to Stephanie Pollack, the deputy administrator running the Federal Highway Administration.
In other words, states don’t want any new hoops to jump through.
The federal agency issued guidance last month announcing that it wanted as much of the new money as possible spent on Biden administration goals, such as fixing existing roads rather than building new ones, promoting nonmotorized modes of transportation and addressing climate change.
In that guidance, Pollack indicated that FHWA would encourage those types of projects by, for example, expediting environmental reviews of projects to add bike lanes but scrutinizing the environmental impacts of projects that added more vehicle lanes.
But FHWA has very limited say in what projects states ultimately choose, something Wilson reiterated in the AASHTO letter.
“AASHTO also appreciates FHWA’s acknowledgement that this guidance does not suggest that the agency has the authority to require states to invest federal formula funds in certain types of projects nor restrict them from investing in other types of projects,” he wrote.
Wilson suggested that the Biden administration and state transportation departments are more aligned in their priorities than many critics believe. State transportation agencies have made strides in promoting safety, passenger rail, transit, resilience, walking and cycling, he wrote.
He said the state agencies supported the idea of viewing roads, not just as highways, but as “complete streets” that cater to many types of users, not solely vehicle drivers. In fact, AASHTO’s vice president, Roger Millar, Washington state’s transportation secretary, previously served as the director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Wilson noted.
“State DOTs also recognize the transportation industry is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In response, thirty-four states have released a climate action plan or are in the process of revising or developing one,” he wrote.
“State DOTs have made a substantial and meaningful transition from the road builders of the Interstate era to be key stewards of system preservation, multimodal mobility, and innovation—and will continue to do so with our federal and local government partners,” Wilson added.
Of course, Pollack is well acquainted with states’ handling of those issues. She served as the Massachusetts transportation secretary (and a member of AASHTO) before she joined the Biden administration last year. Pollack championed complete streets and reliable transit in that job.
Pleas For Flexibility
The AASHTO letter defended the ability of states to choose which types of projects they fund, because state road networks and other factors vary so widely among states. West Virginia, for example, owns 89% of the roads in its borders, while New Jersey owns 6%.
The group specifically challenged the administration’s focus on limiting road expansions. Pollack indicated that state agencies should focus on fixing existing roads before adding new ones.
The size of the road network in the United States grew by 223,000 lane miles between 2009 and 2017, but AASHTO said only 8% of that increase came on state roads.
And Wilson said state agencies have to consider public input, legal constraints and the amount of money they have available before settling on the list of projects they will fund.
“Proposals to require ‘Fix it First’ solutions or prescribe the use of certain sources of funding for system preservation do not reflect the use of strategic planning but rather a one-size-fits-all approach to asset management,” he wrote.
That’s it for this week’s edition. If you haven’t already, consider signing up here for Route Fifty Today, our daily newsletter, where you can stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices happening in state and local government nationwide. If you have news tips or feedback, if you want to share your community’s story, or if you just want to say hello, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter at @danvock. Thanks for reading!