We've said it before, change is never easy. But I believe that outside the Beltway, Americans are counting on us to improve our transportation system. So this week I am traveling to five different cities in five different states across the country with Acting Undersecretary Tyler Duvall, Federal Transit Administrator Jim Simpson and Deputy Highway Administrator James Ray to share our ideas. We're hitting the road to meet with local and state officials, members of the business and banking communities, academics and policy makers to discuss our plan to refocus, reform and renew the nation's approach to surface transportation.
Monday we started in Salt Lake City. This is a city that isn't afraid to try new things when it comes to transportation. They've been innovative when it comes to setting up new light rail lines and have one of the fastest growing commuter rail systems in the country. And two years ago, they put in place an ambitious new high occupancy toll lane network along Interstate 15. The network allows commuters who purchase a special decal to access the Interstate’s high occupancy vehicle lanes - giving them more reliable commutes and freeing up capacity on the other lanes. While still relatively low tech, the system has already led to a doubling in the amount of cars using the dedicated lanes.
Now state officials want to upgrade the system by installing electronic tolling sensors that would allow motorists with small, easy to install transponders to access the lanes. The beauty of the system is that it allows transportation officials to easily vary the charge for access to the lanes based on overall highway demand. That way, they can use pricing to keep traffic constantly flowing on the express lanes. The one problem is, to make this conversion, state officials need to seek special permission from the federal government, thanks to the process-focused system we have in place today. This adds time and cost to a project the state could otherwise move forward on tomorrow.
So I met with the head of the state's transportation department, John Njord, and together we spoke with the media about how under our reform proposal, the state would have greater flexibility and more resources to move forward with projects just like this. That is because our proposal's Metropolitan Mobility Program would give communities greater ability to use federal dollars on the projects that make the most difference on congestion, instead of having to slice and dice every dollar into different federally-mandated buckets. And we put an end to needless process requirements that require states like Utah to wait for Washington's permission to move forward with common sense, locally-funded initiatives.
Later, I had the chance to share these observations with Utah's Governor Jon Huntsman during a meeting at the state capitol. I told him how states like Utah would benefit under our reform proposal and I told him the input of Governors will be critical when Congress reauthorizes the federal surface transportation program. After all, if we rely on the status quo and don’t take into account the needs of the traveling public, we'll just get more wasteful spending, more out of touch earmarks and more process requirements that add cost, time and nuisance to the system. The Governor, who comes from a business background, understood exactly what we were talking about and was eager to engage.
The initial response we received to our new ideas and message of change was extremely positive and encouraging. I’ll report on our successful visits to Houston and St. Louis tomorrow.