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USDOT Outlines Path Forward With New Infrastructure Law

Roughly half the funding from the federal infrastructure package will be dispersed through the U.S. Department of Transportation, handing the agency a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the U.S. transportation system.

The recently passed federal infrastructure law will reshape the nation’s top transportation agency through new programs, priorities and funding, officials say.

Roughly half of the funding from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be dispersed through the U.S. Department of Transportation, helping to fund some 44 new programs to not only upgrade nearly every aspect of the nation’s transportation system, but to do it with a renewed ethos around safety, climate, equity, resilience and innovation.

“Many of us have hoped for a major, well-funded transportation bill for a number of years. And now we have one,” said U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board last week. The board is a division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The new law, Trottenberg contended, represents the kind of funding that would normally be legislated across 25 years or so. “This is really just the beginning of what I think is a generational effort,” she added.

Several priorities will guide how the money gets spent, USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg explained at the conference last week, as he outlined focus areas like jobs, climate, equity, safety, and “preparation for the future.”

When it comes to innovation, the secretary stressed that USDOT is “working very hard to make sure that ‘innovation’ isn’t just a buzzword that loses its meaning, but a means to an end.”

To ensure the funding is spent smartly — and on the right sorts of projects — USDOT will examine those through three lenses: prioritization, access and equity, and delivery.

“Even though these seem like, and are, colossal sums of money, they could still go very quickly if we’re not very effective and very smart about where these dollars go,” said Buttigieg.

“We’ve got to make sure we identify those opportunities where there’s going to be the biggest impact. And that means looking at the big picture of what we need out of transportation for the future,” he added.

When it comes to access, officials said USDOT wants a process that makes it easy for even the smallest municipality to apply for funding, and participate in the agency’s new programs.

“It’s very important that every kind of community feels the impact,” said Buttigieg.

USDOT will also be exploring how to make projects more modular, scalable, or more nimble so that “they are on time, on task, on budget,” said Buttigieg.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.