Every Innovation Starts With A Conversation
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Last week, thousands of transportation leaders, professionals and students attended the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) 102nd annual meeting in Washington D.C. to discuss the infrastructure industry’s ambitious goals for safety, resilience, decarbonization and more.    

Throughout all the programs, state DOT roundtables and poster presentations, the most discussed topic was the Biden Administration’s landmark Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), or Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). This historic bill is the most lucrative, long-term investment in our nation’s infrastructure since the construction of the Interstate Highway System nearly a century ago.     

Since the administration allocated the first round of funding in 2022, over $60 billion has been distributed among the 50 states, Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., as well as other transportation partners. The most recent rounds of funding are formula grants, which means states receive funds based on formulas created by Congress.    

At the conference, many DOT officials spoke of the recent infrastructure law and what it meant for state departments and their communities. In a Q&A session with state department leaders, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), Dr. Shawn Wilson, addressed the law’s historic funds and the unique opportunities it provides to each agency:    

“Every state DOT will be able to affect change in their state’s technology, such as electrification. All these tools will allow a state that may be at a totally different place on the spectrum of investment and effort to do well and to start to make progress. Some will do better than others. Some will not do as much as others as quickly, but I think it’s the opportunity to use those elements as best the states can to affect change.”   

BIL is the first infrastructure law in history to address the nation’s climate crisis while simultaneously advancing the resiliency of America’s transportation infrastructure in the face of extreme weather conditions and other climate impacts.     

With over $50 billion dollars of the investment dedicated to resilience alone, the law also requires state departments to prioritize projects that combat climate change. This investment provides numerous opportunities for state departments, local governments, and tribes to invest the funds in equitable, climate-friendly infrastructure.     

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg was among the many transportation and energy officials who spoke of the infrastructure law and its commitment to resiliency at the annual conference.    

“One of the extremely exciting major investments in the President’s infrastructure package is the Low or No Emission Bus Vision,” said Buttigieg. “[We’re] literally putting our money where our mouth is so that instead of urging or pressuring transit authorities to buy these zero emission buses, for example, we’re funding them to do that.”     

Additionally, one of the formula grants enacted under IIJA was the Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient and Cost-Saving Transportation (PROTECT) Formula Program. This grant focuses on making surface transportation more resilient to natural disasters such as climate change, extreme weather conditions, wildfires and related natural hazards.    

At the conference, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) administrated a PROTECT program presentation where FWHA officials discussed how the program was structured, the allocation of the funds, and eligible activities, facilities, and costs.    

“In the formula program, there’s very little done to say how an individual state programs their projects and which ones they focus on,” said Environmental Protection Specialist at the FWHA Rob Kafalenos.   

“But there are some areas, some ways in which there are some restrictions. First, there’s a minimum amount that has to go towards planning activities. This is the 2% minimum set aside of the apportionment funds. And again, you can cover a lot of different things including development of the Resilience Improvement Plan and vulnerability assessments, but also technical training, taking courses focused on resilience.”   

Along with the BIL’s commitment to cultivating a resilient infrastructure system, state DOT leaders discussed the need for implementing innovative technologies.     

These innovative technologies, such as e-Ticketing, minimize project impacts and maximize their return on infrastructure investments. However, for many state DOTs, mainstreaming innovative technologies across infrastructure systems is still an ongoing battle.    

Eileen Vélez Vega, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTOP), spoke of her department’s efforts to mainstream innovations despite her agency’s constant recovery efforts due to extreme weather conditions.    

“We’ve been so focused on recovery we forget all the other innovation opportunities that we have,” said Vega. “We also have been integrating innovations [in]to technology for construction and with our interim model for transportation. It’s going to be the year where we finally integrate full payment integration between the Urban Train, the Metropolitan Bus Authority, the Maritime Transportation Authority into one collection system.”  

SOURCES: White House, FHWA