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March 16, 2021Episode 4: Policy, Priorities, and Possibilities. What might we see from new leadership at USDOT?
FEATURING: Greg Winfree
Presidential administrations and their appointees come and go, but USDOT’s mobility mission remains constant. Challenges span a wide spectrum from yesterday’s aging infrastructure to tomorrow’s emerging technologies. Transportation is the circulatory system of the American way of life, Greg Winfree reminds us, and potholes don’t come with “R” or “D” labels.
About Our Guest
TTI Agency Director
Greg Winfree became TTI’s agency director in 2016 after working at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). He began his USDOT service as chief counsel in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology and was later sworn in as assistant secretary. He also served as deputy administrator and administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration. Prior to those appointments, Greg served as corporate counsel for a number of Fortune 500 corporations, and also worked as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello again. This is Thinking Transportation, a podcast about how we get ourselves and our stuff from one place to another, and all the implications of what happens in between those places. I’m your host, Bernie Fette, editor-at-large at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. And today, I’m delighted to be visiting with my boss. Greg Winfree is the agency director here at TTI. He’s also a former U.S. assistant secretary of transportation. Having worked in those very different, but closely related fields — the world of public policy and transportation and then in research — he probably has some unique observations to share, especially with the changing of the guard that we’re still adjusting to. Greg, we know you’re a pretty busy guy without a lot of spare time. So thanks for sharing some of that with us today.
Greg Winfree (guest) (01:05):
Well, thanks so much, Bernie. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you.
Bernie Fette (01:09):
By the way, happy birthday.
Greg Winfree (01:10):
I appreciate that as well. The years keep flying by.
Bernie Fette (01:14):
One more trip around the sun, and if it was on social media, it must be true. Right?
Greg Winfree (01:19):
Well, you know, that’s where all of the best information comes from.
Bernie Fette (01:24):
Okay. So it’s been about four years now, since you finished your last gig before your current one, when you were at USDOT, assistant secretary of transportation. What do you think has changed the most in terms of transportation policy and practice?
Greg Winfree (01:44):
You know, many things have changed; many haven’t. One thing I think that kind of lost steam or at least lost direction was a focus on investment in infrastructure. You remember in the previous administration put out their infrastructure plan, it had a lot of non-infrastructure elements to it. So it wasn’t a truly dedicated infrastructure plan. And that caused a lot of consternation in Washington about how to get that right. And I think the roads and bridges aspect kind of got put on the side burner, although they remained important. So, uh, there’s still an undercurrent of an effort to resuscitate that in Washington, I remain hopeful that we’ll see some legislation coming out of Washington that puts significant investment into transportation infrastructure. ‘Cause I think that really is an area that is in need of attention. What, with the declining revenues being generated by the highway trust fund from the gas tax, et cetera.
Greg Winfree (02:50):
Another area that has changed dramatically at the department of transportation has to do with connected vehicle technologies. When I was in Washington, connected vehicles were the technologies that allowed vehicles to talk to one another so that you had better situational awareness in order to avoid crashes and conflict between vehicles, as well as getting a convenience and road weather advanced warnings or advanced notice. But the radio frequency allocation from the FCC that was allotted to allow for connected vehicle technologies has been under threat largely since 2014, when Google came out with the self-driving car and had statements that they wouldn’t need to rely upon connected vehicle technologies; that their rolling computer would have all of the answers in every driving scenario. As the years went on, self-driving technology developers realized that having the ability to be connected with others in the flow of transportation where in traffic would be of benefit. It was a sensor that they could add that would improve the operational capabilities of their vehicles. So that argument went away. But the threats against the spectrum that had been allocated continued as the Wi-Fi industry were seeking more real estate on the radio frequency spectrum, so that they could have a contiguous pathway for the throughput of data that wireless devices utilize and capitalize upon. So literally, they wanted you to get your Hulu faster. They wanted you to get your Netflix faster. When I was at DOT, we used to say, we don’t want people being entertained to death, but that’s where we are. It remains a contentious issue in Washington and it looks as if you’re figuring out which horse is winning the race thus far, I would say it’s certainly leaning toward Wi-Fi getting their wishes and getting 45 of the 75 megahertz that had been allocated to transportation safety.
Bernie Fette (05:04):
Okay. On the other side of that coin, does anything come to mind in terms of what seems to have not changed at all since you were there?
Greg Winfree (05:12):
So things that haven’t changed–I would certainly say the mission of the department remains strong. A way to think about particularly DOT is there is a strong cadre of career employees, and those are the folks who by definition spend their careers at agencies like DOT, but they’re also the custodians of the corporate history and knowledge and the ability to pass that information from generation to generation. And then you have the political appointees who come in almost episodically, they’re attached to an administration. So they’re going to be there at a max eight years. So they’re the ones who need to rely upon the expertise that the career staff has built. So the mission that’s carried forward by the career folks that at USDOT remains the same. They remain committed to what they do to ensure the safest and most efficient transportation systems for the American traveling public. So certainly that mission and that dedication for the organizational mission hasn’t changed.
Bernie Fette (06:29):
What hasn’t changed, it sounds like, is the stability of the organization in general.
Greg Winfree (06:34):
I would say that that’s a definite yes. You do get some when the political appointees come on board, they of course are aligned with the priorities of the administration. So there’ll be some tweaking around the edges, but it’s fair to say that the mission of Federal Highways is well-defined, the mission of FAA, the mission of the Maritime Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, NHTSA–those mission areas have been well-defined and are the province of those operating administrations.
Bernie Fette (07:09):
So it sounds like we can at least count on some measure of continuity.
Greg Winfree (07:12):
Bernie Fette (07:12):
Fair to say?
Greg Winfree (07:14):
Bernie Fette (07:15):
When I was getting ready for our conversation today, Greg, I did just a little bit of online searching and noticed that first time that we had the appointment of a secretary of transportation was in 1967. And since then, the department’s been led by a fairly diverse collection of people–both men and women, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Japanese heritage, and now the first LGBT American. And I’m just wondering, does that distinction tell us anything? Is diversity somehow more relevant in the context of transportation?
Greg Winfree (07:51):
You know, that’s a keen observation and a great question. You know, you’ve probably heard me say out on the speaking circuit, that transportation is the circulatory system of, really, our economy and our American way of life. And it, you know, much like the circulatory system in the human body, if you get an occlusion on any particular artery, you have a problem, right? So these are issues that hit the American public at all levels, regardless of if you’re a personal vehicle owner or if you’re a transit rider, these issues matter. And these are literally where the rubber hits the road. Now, when I worked at DOT, Deputy Secretary John Porcari, he used to always say, there are no Republican or Democratic potholes. People call their legislator’s office; they want solutions. They want them now. And those are the kinds of low-hanging fruit that politicians should be able or expected to deliver on. Right? So these are fundamental matters for the movement of people, data and goods in the U.S. And there’s no particular group that owns it any greater than any other. So since that’s the case, and since the need to connect with constituents and constituencies around the country, on these issues, you need to be reflective of who you’re representing in this moment, most fundamental of agencies. So I think that’s why you see such a widespread talent that has led the department. To a person, they’re all recognized as motivational leaders. They may not be transportation experts. They will be by the time they leave. But more importantly, they’re able to coalition-build, not just internally at DOT, but across government with organizations like TRB and ITS America and ITE. So it really is almost a pastoral kind of leadership approach to the department and its mission and its ability to bring parties together for a common goal and common good.
Bernie Fette (10:07):
And I know we’re talking about things at the federal level, but it sounds like what you’re saying can easily be applied to state, local in the context of transportation, too, right?
Greg Winfree (10:18):
It can, but state and local tends to get a bit more targeted or there may be issues that are important to the state that have not migrated to the federal level, or maybe even anathema to the federal level. You know, some of the pushback on bike and ped access and complete streets thinking, you hear some criticisms. I even testified before the [Texas] Senate yesterday and received a question about whether or not there has been any analysis into the cost-benefit ratio of Toward Zero Deaths. There was a recognition that it started as a federal initiative that migrated down to the states. And there was a question that while we certainly don’t want anyone to die on our roadways, at what economic expense is this being undertaken? So again, it depends on the state. Depends on the legislatures. It depends on what their constituents are feeding back. So … so the perspectives of the individual states will reflect their individual realities.
Bernie Fette (11:26):
What about diversity in terms of transportation? Wondering about your thoughts on what that topic has come to mean, what it’s come to encompass since the days when transportation was basically highway only, and maybe how you see that evolution unfolding more in the years ahead.
Greg Winfree (11:45):
Well, it’s probably a two-part answer to that question. The first part would be, there is more of a focus in transportation decision-making impacting disadvantaged or minority communities. There’s a great book called The Big Roads that talks about how highway interstate placement decisions were made back in the Fifties when you literally had interstates going through the middle of Black and Brown neighborhoods, and bisecting them with no way to get from one side to the other; these are communities that have been historic. So it caused community collapse. So you’re hearing more about equity in transportation now, and it’s important that that conversation is going on, and not just from the infrastructure-building perspective, but as we look at the rollout of advanced technologies to improve mobility, because really that’s what the term is nowadays. Transportation is a bit of an anachronism that focuses on the 10 operating administrations, but it is a seamless as possible, cohesive system of systems, and they all interconnect and interrelate. So that’s why it’s now one that focuses on mobility.
Greg Winfree (13:01):
But looking at mobility, particularly with respect to electrification and personal mobility vehicles being more available and the shared economy, the equity questions become well, why is Uber circulating in the more affluent neighborhood and difficult to get service in disadvantaged communities? You know, who’s making the decisions on where bike share goes or scooter share? You know, who’s paying attention to the unique issues in urban environments with respect to accommodating pedestrians and bikes. And how does that work in disadvantaged communities and those sorts of things. How do … how do you improve transit service for those that don’t have the ability or the means or the wherewithal to have their own vehicles to get back and forth and to and fro to work and grocery, et cetera. So from a diversity perspective on how transportation impacts communities, that’s a conversation that has grown significantly over time with respect to the diversity of the mix of operating administration thought … that’s a great question because there was a challenge, certainly when I was at DOT of where does bike/ped fall? Is that a NHTSA responsibility? Is that a Federal Highways responsibility? Do we need to create a new office that focuses on personal mobility in light mobility for short-distance travel? So we looked at, you know, since it was the highway, only years, a lot has moved around. Although the docket at DOT hasn’t changed, the issues with Federal Motor Carrier and NHTSA haven’t changed; organizations have been created to specially focus on those that were born out of Federal Highway’s mission as it became more specialized. So I think we’ll continue to see that. Where you’re going to need to figure out … where does low-altitude transportation fit? Is it within the FAA mission, or is there a need for a separate focus?
Bernie Fette (15:04):
And when you say low-elevation, you’re talking about unmanned vehicles, drones?
Greg Winfree (15:10):
Yes, drones. Delivery drones. And even the people-mover drones that companies like Uber Elevate and others are exploring from an FAA perspective. You know, they control access to the national airspace of course, in partnership with the military, but national airspace starts at about 500 feet. So from 499 down, who’s really responsible for that? There’s going to be a need for a complex traffic management system. You know, what’s that gonna look like to have four-dimensional traffic management? So those are challenges that are near-term as we start to look at Amazon and others chomping at the bit to get drone deliveries, right? Others looking at how do I move people from point A to point B in that same airspace, along with general aviation that already operates there along with medevac helicopters, news helicopters, you know … there’s a lot of activity already in the 499 feet and down space, and it needs to be deconflicted before you turn on the switch and allow access to, you know, what otherwise looks like just open sky.
Bernie Fette (16:22):
We’ve come a pretty long way since the highway-only days, right?
Greg Winfree (16:25):
Bernie Fette (16:26):
You mentioned a little while ago, how there’s no such thing as a partisan pothole.
Greg Winfree (16:33):
Bernie Fette (16:33):
Of course, depending on who you talk to, some people believe–a lot of people believe–that our nation has become very divided.
Greg Winfree (16:40):
Bernie Fette (16:42):
So, I’m wondering to what extent, if any, can transportation be one of those rare areas of public policy that might offer a path to common purpose and shared aspirations?
Greg Winfree (16:56):
You know, that’s an interesting way to look at it, and I would like to say that the answer is, yes, it would be kind of a load stone where those ideas could carry forward. But I think the truth of the matter is, Issues in and around transportation that have common goal, common purpose are going to be limited to that realm. And issues that fall in other areas or with under other agencies that have historically or recently been contentious will remain so. So it’s a bit disappointing to have to admit that, but I really think that’s where this will fall out. And there’s not always unanimity in the execution of the transportation mission. You know, there’s still a lot of not-in-my-backyard. There’s still a lot of, what are the environmental impacts for decisions that are made? Don’t get me wrong; there is still controversy in how the transportation mission is executed, but more often than not, there’s commonality because the constituents and their legislators understand that getting from point A to point B is extraordinarily important. And in order to accommodate that, you know, we need to shake hands across the aisle and move the agenda forward.
Bernie Fette (18:16):
The American Society of Civil Engineers report card on America’s infrastructure came out recently. Now and then, we have a big wake-up call when it comes to transportation infrastructure like we had when the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minnesota 13 years ago. When you look at our current conditions and the trends related to America’s transportation infrastructure, is there anything that keeps you up at night?
Greg Winfree (18:43):
You know, state of good repair writ large remains problematic. So the grade won’t fluctuate much. Y’all will remember this from when you were in formative school. One teacher’s B may be another teacher’s D. So, so we’re failing our nation. We’re failing to keep up the basic infrastructure that was put in in the fifties that’s already over-taxed to keep it in a state of good repair. So in I-35 is a catastrophic event. It’s what happens when the dollars and cents aren’t allocated for routine maintenance. You know, you don’t get to the catastrophic problems unless routine maintenance has been overlooked. So the problems that we’re seeing only get worse over time, and now we’re four more years in without a significant infusion of cash to focus on it, or a significant technological improvement. So it’s … it’s a big problem.
Bernie Fette (19:45):
And it’s a big problem in a suite of big problems.
Greg Winfree (19:50):
Bernie Fette (19:50):
Especially considering being a little over a year into a pandemic, for instance.
Greg Winfree (19:56):
That’s right. But if anything keeps me up at night, it’s the fact that the system, top to bottom, has not received the attention that it needs–not deserves–that it needs over time. And those underlying issues are only getting worse.
Bernie Fette (20:12):
My last question for you though, I have to preface by telling listeners that Greg is somebody who appreciates motorcycle riding, and he also appreciates his Chihuahua.
Greg Winfree (20:25):
Bernie Fette (20:25):
Yeah. Who is named Maya. Shortly after Greg came to work at TTI, I saw a delightful photo of him on his motorcycle with a sling over his shoulders that has a pouch just big enough for Maya to fit into. That photo of you, Greg — your hog and your dog…
Greg Winfree (20:43):
Yeah, that’s right.
Bernie Fette (20:46):
Yeah, made me think of how transportation it’s always had an element to it that was more than just the practical task of showing up someplace on time out of obligation or need. And that’s something that a lot of us have felt, especially during a pandemic when … when we just felt the need to get out and about for nothing more than that, just getting out and about. I wonder if that’s something you’ve thought about and how we need to prepare for and incorporate that element in how we think about transportation.
Greg Winfree (21:17):
Well, there’s a certain tension there. We’re blessed to live in a country where we’ve got significant automotive choices that you can align and match to your personality as well as the basic transportation needs. That’s not necessarily the case in other countries around the world. In the Eighties, when I was in college, I lived in Budapest, Hungary, and there was an awful Soviet car called the Trabant. It was a two-stroke, blue-smoke-blowing… It looked like an Animal Cracker box with wheels.
Bernie Fette (21:54):
Greg Winfree (21:54):
And you couldn’t tell model years other than vehicle color, you probably couldn’t find your car in a lineup. So it was at least from the spoiled American perspective, a drab and uninviting means of transportation. But again, it met the basic need for many of the citizens of that country. So we’re also blessed with open roads, traffic congestion not withstanding. And then we’ve got the here in Texas cultural driver of one man, one truck. So we have a lot of folks who have grown accustomed to having their vehicle with their music. So it becomes an extension of comfort expectations. And that’s why you never really saw a significant uptake. You heard a lot of talk about carpooling, but other than examples, that are somewhat scattered thinking of Washington, D.C., with the slug lines where people will carpool in order to avoid sitting in a substantial traffic around the beltway. But those kinds of shared experiences are rare. And I would even point out that Uber and Lyft started as a means of democratizing transportation, where, Bernie, you would say, “Hey, I’m heading to the Trader Joe’s. I live here. This is the path we have taken. Anybody want to catch a ride and chip in for the gas?” And presumably two or three other folks would say, yeah, I’ll join you. But it turned into single-occupant with a driver, but it didn’t do much to improve traffic congestion or really encourage true sharing in this so-called shared economy. So all of those cultural factors and comfort factors conspired to keep a lot of cars on the road. Even if we’re talking about an automated-vehicle future 20 years from now, when you can go to your dealer and buy a self-driving car, we need to start thinking about what incentives can be built in so that people will indeed “share the ride” and cut down on roadway congestion, and all of the attendant factors that idling vehicles create from a climate change perspective. So that’s why I’m saying there’s a lot of impact, and we’re at a tension point where giving up what we’ve grown accustomed to and find culturally desirable can match what the future will dictate from a congestion management, climate change, state of good repair and a bunch of other factors that transportation is considering now, but has not yet come up with policy solutions.
Bernie Fette (24:33):
And I remember from another conversation that we had some months ago talking about the eventual proliferation of self-driving cars–connected cars–and the point that you were making was even whenever those vehicles come to dominate the highway landscape for us, you’re still going to have a lot of people who want to drive their ’57 Chevys.
Greg Winfree (24:52):
Yeah. And you know, you may recall, I used to call it the mosh pit, when you’ve got ’57 Chevys and cars from the Eighties and Nineties. And so you’ll have analog cars merging and interacting with digital cars in, we need to figure out a communications platform that can de-conflict that or other policies that can de-conflict it. So that’s why you hear things about dedicated lanes for automated vehicles and other travel pathways, where they can traverse without the inattentive human causing an issue.
Bernie Fette (25:29):
Kind of brings us back to the concept of diversity.
Greg Winfree (25:30):
Bernie Fette (25:32):
A whole additional level of diversity, just in terms of the mix on the roads.
Greg Winfree (25:36):
That’s for sure.
Bernie Fette (25:36):
Greg Winfree–agency director at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Thank you, sir. This has been fun.
Greg Winfree (25:46):
Well, it’s been a great pleasure and I appreciate the opportunity to sit and visit and have a nice fireside chat.
Bernie Fette (25:51):
Thank you, sir.
Greg Winfree (25:52):
Take care, now.
Bernie Fette (25:55):
In the policy and practice of transportation in America, some things have changed since the USDOT was established half a century ago. Others have remained constant, as Greg Winfree just helped us understand. Our need for safe and reliable transportation is simple, and it’s immutable. But the ways in which we go about providing it are not. Whether we’re talking modal, cultural, environmental, technological, or some other context, moving people and goods–and all the data that goes with them–is increasingly complex and constantly evolving. More than ever, transportation truly touches every aspect of our lives.
Bernie Fette (26:39):
Thank you for listening to Thinking Transportation. We hope you’ll subscribe and share, and we hope you’ll check in with us again next time, when we talk with Edith Arambula-Mercado and Charles Gurganus–both civil engineers at TTI and experts in transportation infrastructure–the same infrastructure that recently got some rather unflattering grades from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Bernie Fette (27:06):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your host and writer, Bernie Fette. Thanks again. See you next time.