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Infrastructure money: ‘Informed risks’ to help guide rollout

DOT implementation director tells Transportation Research Board meeting that department will be assessing itself to ensure transparency

DOT officials present virtually at TRB on Monday. Credit: John Gallagher/FreightWaves

With an unprecedented $567 billion it will be receiving from the new bipartisan infrastructure law — much of it to help unclog supply chain bottlenecks — the U.S. Department of Transportation is girding itself for the increased scrutiny it expects to receive to ensure against waste, fraud and abuse.

Katie Thomson, who was named director of bipartisan infrastructure law implementation in December, will focus on working with the White House and other federal and state agencies to “get things done quickly, efficiently, effectively and transparently,” she told attendees during a panel discussion at the Transportation Research Board’s Annual Conference in Washington on Monday.

“We will be assessing ourselves to make sure we’re following the letter of the law in achieving the objectives and outcomes that we want. But we will work collaboratively with the inspector general, the [U.S. Government Accountability Office] and anyone else that wants to look at our work so we can continue to improve on how we deliver.”

In assessing how billions of dollars in competitive grants are distributed among states to help improve and expand roads, bridges and ports, Thomson said DOT will take “smart, informed risks” to deliver results.

“We will rely on sound science and vigorous debate, and we look to deliver solutions that meet the diverse needs of the people and communities across this country. We look to maximize flexibility to deliver the best and most enduring outcomes.”

Thomson, who was recently vice president and associate general counsel for transportation and sustainability at Amazon, worked at DOT in various roles during the Obama administration, including counselor to the transportation secretary (2009-2012), chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration (2012-2014) and general counsel of DOT (2013-2016).

Thomson was joined on the panel by several senior-level DOT officials, including DOT Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg.

Asked if DOT will have the flexibility to prioritize discretionary grants and other funds for the most urgent supply chain bottlenecks, Trottenberg pointed to progress already seen at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as well as improved inventory levels. “Supply chain is going to be one of the focus areas, as well as state freight plans for the longer term,” she said.

Carlos Monje, DOT undersecretary of transportation for policy, said DOT would be “proactively looking at places where there are choke points in the system and reaching out to applicants to get funding in the right places.”

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The first of four new infrastructure programs included in the infrastructure law overseen by the Federal Highway Administration — a five-year, $27 billion bridge replacement program — will be unveiled this week, according to FHWA Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack, who was also on the panel.

“It’s the largest investment in bridges since the initial construction of the Interstate Highway System,” Pollack said. She added that every state will get money, and that the program will also include funding for bridges that are owned by counties and cities and not part of the national highway system.

Addressing supply chain issues will also take more of the attention of the Federal Railroad Administration, the main function of which is to regulate rail safety.

“A number of projects that were chosen with a rail focus in 2021 competitive grant programs indicates that we think rail can be very much an integral part of the supply chain improvement efforts,” said FRA Deputy Administrator Amit Bose. “We also think that freight and passenger rail can work together and don’t have to be exclusive in delivering those results.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.