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2021 American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Washington Briefing Federal Leadership Roundtable


American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Washington Briefing Federal Leadership Roundtable 2021
Remarks of Acting Administrator Nuria Fernandez (as prepared for delivery)

Good afternoon. Thank you, Shawn [Wilson, AASHTO Vice President]. I appreciate the opportunity to join Secretary Buttigieg, my federal colleagues and all of AASHTO’s members who have tuned in today.

As you heard earlier from Secretary Buttigieg, the Administration is seeking to establish policies that elevate people. So, while we are looking to deliver generational investments, equity, in particular, is at stake in our transportation policy.

We all know that our industry is critical. One of our major goals is to support more transportation networks with more equitable options to ensure that it is as accessible as possible.

Of course, FTA is also focused on the financial health of transit agencies. Some of you may not know that this is my second tour of duty with FTA after having served in the Clinton Administration. A lot has changed since I last worked at FTA! We now manage a baseline program of nearly $13 billion, up from just over $6.2 billion when I previously worked here. 2021 brings more than its share of challenges but also funding to help address them.  

Combined with the $25 billion in CARES funding, $14 billion in CRRSAA funding, and a likely supplemental appropriation of perhaps $30 billion dollars, FTA will disburse about $80 billion dollars this year. 

This is transit’s moment. Delivering these funds effectively to the industry, including our state DOTs, is critical. As part of that, we will also take extra care to consider equity in our decision-making. 

Last month, President Biden reaffirmed the federal government’s commitment to eliminate systemic racism by signing an Executive Order that advances racial equity and support for underserved communities. It is notable that, among his first actions, on his very first day in office, the President highlighted the need for equity in our country. In the EO, the President reaffirmed that diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths, but that disparities in our laws and public policies have denied opportunity to many. 

We realize that while building infrastructure can help revitalize communities, we need to view our transit investments through the lens of environmental justice and equity, and ask hard questions about who is benefiting from an individual project to see how our investments can be leveraged to bring a positive return for everyone. 

In reality, in most places, the transportation system forces people to rely on cars.  The system therefore poses an equity challenge for anyone who is too young or too old, too poor or disabled to drive, as well as those who live in rural communities lacking transit or rail who also lack regular access to a car.  Building back better means addressing all of those needs.

As we all know, public transportation is the great equalizer: it allows everyone to get to jobs, schools, services, and social activities, regardless of whether they own a car or cannot drive, and it is critical for disadvantaged communities in particular. Serving as the lifeline in a community, transit provides access to jobs, job training, services and opportunity -- and lifts people up in their communities.  

A project FTA funded in Vermont illustrates the sort of equitable transportation system we want to support. The Vermont Agency of Transportation – VTrans – received an FTA Mobility Grant to develop a flexible online trip planner to help rural residents better access on-demand bus service. Vermont transit agencies offer different platforms to find and book transportation, but VTrans integrated those into a seamless, real-time statewide network. Now, all Vermont residents, regardless of where they live, can better plan trips by bus and avoid long headways and route deviations – an equitable solution that provides more opportunities to everyone. 

Achieving equity in our transportation systems will help us meet the challenge that the President has laid before us. At FTA, we are reviewing areas like our Civil Rights Title VI and EEO guidance for transit providers to ensure that we are delivering clear information focused on service that meets the needs of underserved communities. 

While some cities and states are working to bring sidewalks and curb ramps up to ADA standards, few of these plans have been implemented due to the lack of any dedicated funding source.  That makes our crosswalks and sidewalks difficult to navigate for those who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices, and even people heading to accessible transit stations may lack an accessible path of travel to or from their destination.

Admittedly, these equity issues are not easy. Throughout our transportation systems, we can never stop pushing to make it as equitable as possible. Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.