Episode Preview with TxDOT CEO Marc Williams (audio, 49s):
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October 10, 2022Episode 43. Big and Bright: The view from TxDOT CEO Marc Williams’ chair.
FEATURING: Marc Williams
Despite some Texas-sized mobility challenges and worldwide supply-chain obstacles, the guy in charge of the Texas Department of Transportation wants you to know he’s never been more optimistic about our transportation future.
About Our Guest
Executive Director, Texas Department of Transportation
As executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, Marc Williams is responsible for overseeing all agency functions and responsibilities. He joined TxDOT in 2012 as director of planning. In early 2016, he was appointed deputy executive director and, in June 2021, executive director.
Marc serves on leadership boards with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. Prior to joining TxDOT, he worked extensively with national private-sector transportation organizations and served as commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Highways. Marc earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Texas A&M University.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello again. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another, and why that’s rarely as simple as we might want it to be. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. With more than 81,000 miles of state maintained highways, Texas has the most expansive such network in America. Leading the department that takes care of those roads is an enormous job, and few people would know that better than the person holding the job now. Marc Williams is the executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. He joins us for this episode to talk about the lessons learned from the pandemic, the mobility challenges that we face, and why he feels so optimistic about what lies ahead. Marc, thank you so much for taking time to visit with us today.
Marc Williams (guest) (01:12):
Thank you very much, Bernie. Looking forward to our conversation here.
Bernie Fette (01:15):
Well, let’s start, if we could, with just a little about your career path to becoming the CEO of the Texas Department of Transportation. Maybe you could talk just a little bit about how you got where you are and what sort of mentor support you had on your path?
Marc Williams (01:32):
Well, I appreciate that question. First of all, let me say that it is just a tremendous honor to be able to serve the great women and men of the Texas Department of Transportation. And in the time that I have been in this role as executive director, I’ve had the opportunity to get out and travel the state. We have 25 different district offices. I’ve had the chance to visit all of them over the past roughly year and about three months now that I’ve been executive director, along with many of our area offices and maintenance offices throughout the state of Texas. And to meet a good portion of the 12,500 women and men that do the great work day in and day out that TxDOT is involved with. And that has just been a tremendous honor and something that I have really thoroughly enjoyed doing. But I certainly didn’t set out to be executive director with the Texas Department of Transportation and hadn’t really even been thinking of working in state government when I started out.
Marc Williams (02:31):
But every step along the way, I’ve just pursued and followed my interests and passions and things that I found exciting and wanted to do and have allowed those to evolve. I started my career at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and was involved with traffic operations and went from that into urban planning and highway corridor planning, economics, freight, project delivery, and have really enjoyed each of those areas. But as my interest changed, I moved into different things, but also, I don’t wanna give the impression that you just sort of put your boat in the water and let it carry you where it may take you.
Bernie Fette (03:12):
Marc Williams (03:12):
There were deliberate steps that I took along the way. I made a career choice to spend some time in Kentucky early in my career, and spent a good portion of my career working there and had an opportunity to work in state government and then came back to Texas and worked in the private sector for a period of time, but really sought out an opportunity to move back into state government and was blessed that an opportunity to join TxDOT came about for me about 10 and a half years ago.
Marc Williams (03:40):
And I took that and am fortunate to find myself in the position that I’m at right now. But, you know, along the way, in terms of just mentors, I would say that, you know, I’ve, I’ve had an opportunity to work very closely with a number of state agency heads, both in my time in Kentucky and in my time now here at TxDOT. And I’ve tried to really, you know, watch and learn from those individuals and pick up some of the good habits that they demonstrated along the way. But the people that you work with day in and day out, we’re very blessed. I’m blessed to have a great team at the Texas Department of Transportation day in and day out, and they have talents and abilities that I certainly rely upon and look to, to kind of help me do the job that I’m called upon as executive director. So it’s a kind of a holistic vision in terms of how I’ve kind of gone about my career and continued to do that even now.
Bernie Fette (04:30):
Right. And you talked about things that you kind of discovered from the very beginning, bit by bit and things that you picked up along the way. I’m curious, we tend to think of this as a field where engineering skills are paramount (and they’re certainly prominent) but you talked about picking things up along the way. What sort of other areas of expertise did you pick up along that path, skills that maybe you didn’t even realize you might need when you first started out?
Marc Williams (04:57):
Well, I think one of the big ones to me, and I did start out with a bit of an appreciation for this, is just writing and verbal communication, Uhhuh <affirmative>, and being able to work hard and give attention to communicating succinctly and communicating well and understanding the importance of being able to do that. And when I was in school, I am a graduate of Texas A&M, I took a number of classes in English and maybe didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but really have come to appreciate how critical it is for particularly people in the engineering discipline to be able to communicate oftentimes very complex issues or issues that were maybe very dialed into the specific details of, and be able to communicate that to a, a broader audience or an audience that may not be as, uh, fully involved in all of the aspects of what goes into maintaining and operating and building a transportation system and help to communicate that well. And so I think that was certainly one area that I’ve appreciated throughout my career. But even now, you know, as you look, where we’re at as a new organization and where the industry is headed. Information technology is a great example. And, uh, <affirmative>, we are so dependent upon our IT information technology resources and what we do. Data management is a big one too. And then environmental sciences and understanding how we build and maintain our transportation systems in a environmentally responsible and community responsive manner is critical. And so continuing to see our industry evolve and new tools and uh, skill sets coming into the fold.
Bernie Fette (06:39):
Right. Well-rounded professionally as well.
Marc Williams (06:42):
Bernie Fette (06:43):
Your mission, TxDOT’s mission, it’s very clear and very prominent on your website: Connecting you with Texas. It’s also very, yeah, it’s also very succinct,
Marc Williams (06:53):
Bernie Fette (06:53):
Which I’m guessing that’s probably something else that you can recall from those English classes that you took at Texas A&M. Just four words, but they can say a lot.
Marc Williams (07:03):
Bernie Fette (07:03):
And I wonder if you’d share your thoughts by expanding on that phrase and all that you think it means.
Marc Williams (07:11):
Well, that was a mission statement that our communications team, along with James Bass, who was the executive director prior to me, along with our executive team at the time, really focused on how do we look at our mission statement and do exactly what you said, Bernie, make it succinct and clear in what we are trying to communicate. And connecting you with Texas is really what we’re about with the Texas Department of Transportation. And the thing about that mission statement, and if you go to the website, you might notice that that mission statement kind of changes a little bit in certain areas on our website where it may say, connecting you with Texas safely.
Bernie Fette (07:52):
Yeah, I did.
Marc Williams (07:53):
Or connecting you with Texas efficiently. And that also acknowledges that that mission means different things to different people. People look at their transportation needs in different ways. We’re blessed to have a very broad and diverse state, but with that diversity comes different needs and different expectations relative to how transportation can best serve the population of Texas. And our mission statement is simple but also adaptable to help reflect that.
Bernie Fette (08:24):
And your answer just gave me another segue because you were talking about challenges, and that’s one of the things I was hoping that we could talk about. In working with a state infrastructure that’s aging as the state grows, growing not only in population but also growing in terms of needs for moving people and the everyday products we use, what’s the biggest obstacle you face?
Marc Williams (08:49):
Well, as I think about those challenges and our infrastructure and keeping up with the population growth that we see here in Texas, it is certainly a challenge, but probably the biggest hurdle is really two areas. One is just the cost., Quite clearly, transportation infrastructure is something that is growing in cost. We’ve certainly seen a significant growth in the cost of new construction over the past year. It’s been really startling how much the cost required to upgrade and maintain our highways has grown, driven by international and national trends related to inflation and fuel costs and the availability of the products and the materials that we need to build and maintain our highways.
Bernie Fette (09:37):
And the rate of inflation for highway construction products, if I understand correctly, is rising faster than the inflation rate for everything else we use, it seems.
Marc Williams (09:47):
It absolutely is because I think we’re really kind of at the bullseye, if you will, of a number of different factors that are influencing inflation. I mentioned fuel costs. I also mentioned the availability and the supply of materials, cement, uh, steel, aggregate, all of that is playing into it. Trucking costs are going up and then just labor costs, labor availability. And the labor rates associated with that all have a compounding effect that’s very pronounced in the cost of delivering and maintaining our transportation infrastructure. And so that’s a significant challenge, not only for Texas, but nationally and internationally as well. And keeping up with population growth is a big part of that. But much of our infrastructure falls in our urbanized areas. There are areas where roads and highways were built years ago. They’ve gone through several expansions and, uh, development has occurred along those highways. And being able to expand those highways further often is very challenging. And so that makes it even more costly, especially when we put in efforts to be as sensitive as we can to the environment and minimizing community impacts and doing our best to reduce the amount of right of way that we may have to obtain to widen or maintain our transportation infrastructure. Those, too, are challenges. And those are important challenges.
Bernie Fette (11:15):
If we look at this as a kind of a two-sided coin with you just addressing the challenges on one side, and we flip that coin and talk a little about the solutions, can you talk a little about the solutions, specifically to what extent the solutions are about capacity, how many miles of roadway we have, and how much of the solution mix has to do with how we use those roadways, how we manage demand? Can you talk a little about that?
Marc Williams (11:43):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Sure. Well, you know, in terms of miles of highways, it’s probably not a surprise to anyone that Texas has got more miles of highways than any other state. We’ve got over 81,000 that we maintain on the state highway system by the Texas Department of Transportation. And those miles of highway are used to carry, uh, not only people, but products and goods that people rely upon. And we have to maintain the viability of our highway and transportation system. We have to recognize that the quality of our transportation system, the quality of our highways, has done a lot for the economy and the opportunity that Texans enjoy. But we realized too that with some of the challenges that we talked about previously, that does make it more difficult for us to go to expansion of our highways in certain areas. And we have to work with other stakeholders at times to, to look at where there’s opportunities to provide other choices.
Marc Williams (12:43):
You mentioned demand management and some might feel that that implies taking away or restricting somebody’s ability to, you know, make certain transportation choices. I think it’s mm-hmm. <affirmative> flexibility in demand or providing travel choices that, uh, we’ve got to continue to look at how we do that and providing travel choices. It doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, removing certain choices or, or making certain choices less efficient. We’ve gotta do our best to maintain the choices that people look to, to, for their travel. But we have seen, you know, coming out of the pandemic, that flexibility in demand has offered some benefits for the transportation system. Now when, you know, the pandemic did in fact manage demand because it shut everything down, there was no congestion at all for a period of time. But as we’ve come out of the pandemic period where it shut down and restriction on what people could do in certain areas, and much of our activities have returned to normal, there were some things that we learned through that process. Flexibility associated with things like work. I think you’re still seeing a lot of the benefits of that in some of the congestion levels around our transportation system. If you look at the data that the Texas A&M Transportation Institute produces, we’re showing now that our vehicle miles of travel, the amount of distance that people are traveling on our highways, the amount of travel that it’s occurring is above pre-pandemic levels here in Texas. It went, went back above that quite a while back, So people are traveling more, but the congestion levels, while they’ve returned and they’ve returned significantly in many areas, are not quite at the same levels as they were before the pandemic. They’re not far off, but they’re still a bit away from that. And I think what you’re seeing is people are making the choice and having the ability to make the choice to travel at different times and maybe to have some flexibility to go to different locations through their work and daily activities. And again, a lot of that was brought about through the pandemic and some of the flexibilities that were learned through that time. We’ve continued to carry that forward and that has offered, I think, a measure of benefit for our transportation and mobility even now.
Bernie Fette (15:07):
Yeah. You mentioned the vehicle miles traveled, the, the travel volume and the congestion levels. Did how those numbers look once everything was analyzed surprise you in any way? Did you see that difference coming?
Marc Williams (15:22):
There’s been, you know, several things that have surprised me. And I would say that yes, to a degree that did surprise me how much the travel habits did change. So that was certainly a lesson learned. You know, nobody could have predicted what would’ve happened when the period of the pandemic started. But I certainly would say that it is a bit of a surprise that we have adapted, but I think, you know, we’ve adapted in a positive way in that area. And I think, again, that comes from people having an element of choice about how they go about their activities, go about their work activities throughout the day, and not everybody feels like they have to be at the office or at school at 8:00 AM and leaving right at 5:00 PM and, and you’ve got a more distributed peak period now that is better using the available capacity that we have on our critical highway infrastructure.
Bernie Fette (16:16):
So rush hour is being spread across a bigger portion of the day, it sounds like.
Marc Williams (16:22):
Yes. I think that’s what we’re seeing. And I think our partners at TTI have kind of validated that as well.
Bernie Fette (16:28):
We were talking just a couple minutes ago about challenges and solutions, which I think relates to the action that the Texas Transportation Commission took recently by adopting a unified transportation plan at a cost of about $85 billion. Can you tell us your views on what that level of investment means for the people of this state?
Marc Williams (16:54):
Well, it is really an unprecedented level in the UTP, the Unified Transportation Program. For those that aren’t familiar with that particular document here in Texas, that is our 10-year plan of mostly highway and transportation construction that we manage through the Texas Department of Transportation. And that includes both federal and state funding. And just a few years ago, back in the 2015-2016 timeframe, that 10-year plan stood at around $38 billion or so.
Bernie Fette (17:30):
Marc Williams (17:30):
So it has now more than doubled in the period of about just six to seven years. Which is a, uh, remarkable amount of growth. And it started back in the 2014-2015 timeframe with the passage of two ballot propositions that were supported by our Texas Legislature and Governor Greg Abbott as well — ballot measures that devoted some of our oil and gas severance fees and some of our vehicle registration fees and vehicle use related taxes to transportation. And those were ballot propositions that went to the voters in Texas. And those passed by over 80 percent, each of them did, which shows one, a great deal of support from the citizens of Texas for making investments in our transportation system and addressing our highway needs. And we have really been able to leverage those dollars and put them to work. And then add to that the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which added an additional boost to our revenues that we have to draw on here in Texas, those have helped us to create what is now an $85 billion transportation program to invest in projects associated with addressing congestion. That’s our Texas Clear Lanes Initiative that has been championed by our Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg and, and also the governor. Also making a really significant increase in rural investment, rural connectivity, and taking care of the regions of the state that produced — as one of our commissioners likes to call it — fuel, food and fiber for Texas. Texas, it may surprise some, we have the largest rural population of any state in the U.S. So we have huge urban areas in Houston and the Metroplex, but we also have a large rural population in making investments in that, making investments to serve directly within that rural area, some of our energy production regions that have seen a tremendous amount of demand placed on them through trucking and other related activities. And when I say energy, it’s not just oil and gas, it’s also wind and solar energy that has a significant impact on our transportation system to grow and meet the demands in those areas. And then another very important component that we invest in through our Unified Transportation Program is related to freight and international and national trade. We’ve got a 1,200-mile border with Mexico and about 28 border crossings that serve that, along with the ports and the access to the Gulf of Mexico. We have some of the largest ports in the nation that serve imports and exports and exports of energy product. And so those have been, and continue to be some of the focus areas of the Texas Department of Transportation and our Texas Transportation Commission in utilizing those resources and those funds that we have available through the Unified Transportation Program.
Bernie Fette (20:36):
I really appreciate you bringing up the freight topic because the whole issue of supply chain challenges, supply chain management has been so prominent in the wake of the pandemic. I guess that that mm-hmm. <affirmative> just added one more challenge or one more task on your very large job list for the department and for the state.
Marc Williams (20:57):
Right. It certainly has. And that’s a stakeholder group that we engage with at a variety of levels. One, we have our Freight Advisory Committee that has been in existence now around 10 years. I was involved in the initial formulation of that and working with those stakeholders across Texas in that area. And then another really important area is the evolution of freight in the area of autonomous vehicles, AV freight. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and Texas is really leading the nation in that area relative to the deployment and the testing and soon to be full autonomous operations serving the freight industry here in this state. And that’s a really exciting growth area that’s important for not only the state of Texas, but specifically for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Bernie Fette (21:49):
There are a couple of other things I was really hoping to get to in the limited time we have Marc, but since you mentioned leadership in the freight area, especially with the automated vehicle freight movement, what are some of the other areas where you think Texas is in a leadership role now or coming into one?
Marc Williams (22:09):
Well, we were talking, Bernie, about the autonomous vehicle roles and, and a big part of that has been just some of the enabling legislation and a positive regulatory environment that really fosters transportation technology innovations coming to the state. And I think that in the big picture, Texas has been a leader in just sort of setting a framework that encourages companies that want to be part of that innovation, part of that deployment of new technologies on our transportation system to look to Texas as an environment that is going to welcome and engage them in that area. And I think that’s been a really big part of some of the success and, and the energy and the excitement that we have seen in that area. But aside from just the autonomous vehicle side of it, if we start looking at what it means to have a connected transportation system that’s driven by data mm-hmm.
Marc Williams (23:06):
<affirmative>, and I see that as an area that Texas is really at the cutting edge of, uh, in many respects looking to lead the nation. It is the access and the use and the distribution of data related to the operations of our transportation system here in the state of Texas is, and what is going to make us successful. When we talk about a connected transportation network, it’s that gathering and assembly of data and then the distribution of that data and doing it in real time to our metropolitan planning partners and our research organizations like the folks at TTI and uh, also the Center for Transportation Research over at the University of Texas. And utilizing resources like our geographic information systems GIS, to understand that geospatially and to see what’s going on.
Bernie Fette (23:57):
Marc Williams (23:57):
And then to utilize artificial intelligence to help understand that we’re rapidly getting to the point where the quantity and the amount of the information that we’re gathering up is beyond the ability of us as individuals to see and look at and understand in real time. But through artificial intelligence and computer learning, we have the ability to look for trends and to look for patterns and to identify those issues early on. And that’s gonna be important for things like transportation safety, and going back to what we talked about, giving people choices, right. People may make different choices if they’re getting that information in real time and able to understand, hey, there are disruptions in our supply chain or in my daily commute and travel patterns that I may want to make those choices and make those trips differently. And we’ve gotta get that information out and to get that in real time. And we’re really seeing with the new vehicle technology, just an extraordinary growth in the availability of things like telematic data, which is not only giving us speed and location of cars, but it’s giving us detail information on things like how those vehicles are operating. Information like traction control, steering, braking, ride quality, information that’s just invaluable for us to understand what is going on in real time on our transportation system. And to make decisions to respond to areas where maybe there may be ice accumulation on roadways that we’ll need to get out and respond to. Or it’s beginning to maybe give us an early indication of a deterioration in pavement condition that if you know anything about maintaining transportation, our pavements on our roadways, being able to get out there and address pavement conditions early in the deterioration process is a lot more cost-effective than waiting for significant cracking and potholes to form where it becomes much more costly to make those repairs. So that’s one of the things that I really see us leading the nation in and and investing a lot in the resources that we have in that area.
Bernie Fette (26:10):
And you and your colleagues are working in this field at a time when that’s just emerging. All that you talked about with the new data sources that are available, the automation must be a terribly exciting time for you and your colleagues.
Marc Williams (26:23):
And it’s great to see how much that’s being embraced throughout the organization here with the Texas Department of Transportation. We have teams that work in all of these areas. We’ve got individuals who are just tremendously enthusiastic about seeing where these opportunities are. Another area is in 3D design and being able to more clearly visualize and, and see the work that we’re doing in a virtual environment when it comes to building and designing our transportation systems, and then being able to now transfer that to 3D construction methods that’s going to make us more efficient in delivering that infrastructure.
Bernie Fette (27:04):
Possibilities that very few of us, I would guess even had the slightest idea to be dreaming about just a few years ago, it seems.
Marc Williams (27:13):
Certainly, and I, and I’ve visited with some of our younger engineers and designers that are part of this transition to 3D design. I’ve kind of told him on a number of occasions, years from now, when you’re with TxDOT, you’re gonna be talking to individuals that are your age and you’re gonna be pointing over to this set of paper design plans sitting on the shelf, and you’re gonna ask him, do you all know what this is? Yeah. This is how we used to design roadways.
Bernie Fette (27:39):
Yeah. And this could be your opportunity to look at those young people like I sometimes do and say, you know, when I was your age…
Marc Williams (27:47):
That’s right. It’s a tremendously exciting time in our industry.
Bernie Fette (27:52):
Okay. This is another one of those two sides of the same coin questions. What are you most optimistic about? And conversely, what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?
Marc Williams (28:05):
That’s a great question. And if I think about that, what, in terms of most optimistic about, I would easily say it’s where we are at and where we’re going as an organization with the Texas Department of Transportation. And also as an industry, we’ve talked about our challenges, but as I look at the individuals that are part of TxDOT, the students and the women and men that are coming into the transportation industry, and as I have taken the time to visit, uh, so many of our offices around the state of Texas, I see an optimism within those individuals about where we are. We’ve got newer and young employees that are rising to the challenge that are being given responsibilities that are far greater than what the employees of 10 or 20 years ago would’ve been given within our organization. And some of that presents some challenges, but it also is tremendously encouraging to see the, those individuals rising to the occasion and meeting those challenges, stepping up, taking on huge project management responsibilities and office management responsibilities at a relatively early point in their career.
Marc Williams (29:19):
And while that may come with some level of risk that, you know, if you grew up being mentored by somebody who was mentored by somebody else, and it took you maybe 20 years to get to this point of finally having these opportunities, whereas now you’re maybe getting those opportunities at six or eight years or even younger earlier into your career. What I’m seeing is that one, we’re meeting in rising to that challenge, but we’re also getting the benefit of gaining a level of creativity and adaptability that we see when somebody is really taking on these challenges with a fresh and a new perspective. And that’s what’s helping to certainly lead to a level of optimism that I hold when I think about where we’re at as an organization and an agency. And you know, what keeps me up at night, I really would say I don’t often lose sleep as I outlined in just my previous comments, I’ve got confidence in our organization and I’ve got confidence in our industry and where we’re headed. And TxDOT proves time and again that we can adapt and meet any challenge. And I go back and I think about big events like Hurricane Harvey that we went through several years ago, or just two years ago, the severe impact, uh, through a week-long snow and ice event that covered the entire state of Texas or what we did to transition and to adapt during the period of the pandemic, we continued to do that and to reinvent ourselves as an organization and to rise to these challenges. So I got a lot of confidence in the women and men of this organization, and that helped me not lose too much sleep as CEO. I have to have a little bit of sleeplessness from time to time. But I would say that by and large that those are relatively few and far between because of just the great team that we have with this organization.
Bernie Fette (31:08):
Last thing that I wanted to ask you about. The rest of us can only imagine how demanding your job must be. One thing that I like to ask of all of our guests on this show is one that I’ll pose to you. What is it that motivates you to show up for work every day?
Marc Williams (31:29):
Well, you know, I don’t, I don’t wanna sound too canned, but I do love the work that we get to do with the Texas Department of Transportation. I thoroughly enjoy the job. It kind of goes back to my original comment about, you know, how I found myself as executive director of TxDOT. It’s pursuing the things that I have enjoyed. You have to enjoy the work that you do, and I certainly do enjoy being part of this field. I enjoy working with the women and men of this agency and also engaging with the stakeholders and the people that care about transportation. They see the impact that it has on their business and their economy. They rely upon it to move their goods and services and people. And it is a subject matter that I think a lot of people feel very passionately about. It affects everybody’s life in some way, shape, or form, regardless of where you are. You’re either traveling by transportation or you’re receiving goods and services by transportation. And so it touches everyone’s life. And just that calling and the opportunity that we have as an agency that I have to work alongside the great team that we have with TxDOT is really what certainly makes it easy for me to get up and pursue the work of the day each day.
Bernie Fette (32:41):
Well, I can assure you that did not sound canned at all, Marc. And I don’t <laugh> and I don’t see how it could have sounded canned because I didn’t include that one on the list of questions that I sent you. So I’ll have to confess that I was a bit on the sneaky side there, but it was,
Marc Williams (32:58):
No, not at all.
Bernie Fette (32:58):
It was very genuine. And, we appreciate your candor. Any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Marc Williams (33:05):
Sure. Bernie, you know, as I think about leaving you with something, and it is a bit of a sobering comment, and that goes to transportation safety. And we talk about some of the things that we learned and gained coming out of the pandemic. And one of the things that came out of that pandemic was a tremendous rise in our highway fatalities, not just in Texas, but nationwide.
Bernie Fette (33:29):
Marc Williams (33:29):
Uh, it’s, it’s startling to see where we’re at today. We had, in 2021, around 4,480 individuals lost their lives on highways in the state of Texas. And those are all men, women, and children that were traveling with someplace to go and they never got there. And their families and loved ones and friends, people that knew them, missed them and grieved for them. 4,480 — that is the second-highest year on record. You have to go all the way back to 1981 to find a year that was more than that. The vast majority of the fatalities that we see are due to human decisions, speeding, Right. Driving under the influence, distracted driving and not wearing a seat belt. All of those being choices that somebody is making. And it’s kind of staggering to think about where we were as an industry back in 1981, where we believe we are today, and that we find ourselves at that level of fatalities on our highways today. And we’ve gotta do better in that area. To put it maybe in a different frame of reference — each day on average at that number, we’re losing 12 lives every day. And we have not seen a single deathless day in Texas since November 7th, 2000. So I would imagine if you look around the campus of Texas A&M University, where you’re at today, the majority of the students that you see out there weren’t even born. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that’s a long time to go. And so we’ve gotta at least get to a point where we can end that streak and then continue to work on a Vision Zero where we can hopefully be able to eliminate fatalities on our highways at some point in the future. But an important part of that is gonna be each of us as individuals sharing the importance of just the decisions that we make when we might get behind the wheel.
Bernie Fette (35:36):
And what you say about the last time being at that level of fatalities in the state, going all the way back to 1981, seems especially notable given how many safety improvements have been made industry-wide in, in terms of both vehicles and roadside safety.
Marc Williams (35:53):
Right. We have really had some extraordinary increases in the safety of how we design and build roads and design and build cars. And I’ve made the comment before, our roadways didn’t change over the past two years. Something else is driving that change. And I think it’s the decisions that we’re making and how we’re choosing to operate our motor vehicles and the decisions that we’re making when we’re in those vehicles, that is something that’s affecting this outcome. And so, uh, it is a huge point of focus for us within the agency and with our partners, both on the research end of things, as well as in law enforcement to kind of come together and get us back on the right path when it comes to transportation safety.
Bernie Fette (36:39):
Marc Williams, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. Marc, thank you so much for a really great conversation, and thanks also for your service to the people of Texas.
Marc Williams (36:52):
I appreciate it, Bernie. Thank you. Enjoyed the conversation today.
Bernie Fette (36:57):
The population in Texas is growing more than twice as fast as it is nationally. Hundreds of people move to the state every day, and they’re bringing their cars and trucks with them, presenting transportation planners with a daunting challenge. In response, the state transportation commission has boosted mobility investment to more than double what it was less than a decade ago. It’s an investment that aims to back up a critical mission — connecting people with their state. Thank you for listening. Please join us for our next conversation, and if you would, please give us a review, subscribe, and share this episode. 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 writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.