Safety, streamlined project permitting and technology are key priorities for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation in 2020. In particular, a program focusing on rural infrastructure is unfolding, with applicant toolkits to be unveiled in March, according to federal officials.

Loren Smith, DOT deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy, told attendees of the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting last month in Washington, D.C., that the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) initiative aims to boost safety and economic development through road and bridge projects. While only one-fifth of the nation’s population lives in rural areas, 46% of highway fatalities occur on rural roads and 39% of all highway-rail crossing fatalities occur in rural areas, he said, adding that 80% of bridges closed to traffic are rural.

The ROUTES Council will oversee a team to collect stakeholder input on the benefits of rural projects, provide information to rural communities to assist them in applying for DOT discretionary grants, and improve data-driven approaches to better assess the needs and advantages of transportation infrastructure projects.

Related to permitting issues, Alexander Herrgott, executive director of the U.S. Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, said states can opt into a “one-stop shop” process where every federal agency involved in environmental review of a major infrastructure project will work together to develop a single permitting timetable and issue all necessary authorization decisions within 90 days of issuance of a project Record of Decision.

Herrgott’s comments came one week after the Trump administration proposed federal permitting changes under the National Environment Policy Act. A panel of current and past policymakers from the White House-linked Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which oversees NEPA issues, reflected on the initiatives intended to revise the environmental review process. Steps to limit document page lengths, shorten review times and improve interagency interaction have been recurring themes in NEPA’s past half-century, panelists agreed. They said some current proposed process changes reflect improved electronic communication.

“A fat document is not read,” said Nicolas Yost, the CEQ’s general counsel under President Jimmy Carter, in discussing the proposed 75-page limit for environmental assessments and 300-page limit for environmental impact statements. Still, he criticized more controversial proposed changes, including limited analysis of potential climate change impacts. CEQ “has gone out of its way to invite litigation with the new proposals,” he said.

Regarding safety, Quintin Kendall, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, noted that railroads now have until Dec. 30 to complete installation of positive train control, but that compliance is almost 100%. “It has been 12 years and $20 billion in the making,” he said of the nationwide rail safety upgrade. However, grade crossing accidents remain a concern, he added. 

By Aileen Cho and Jim Parsons