Q & A with Polly Trottenberg, Asst Sec of Transportation Policy at the USDOT

Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation Polly Trottenberg speaking at the Sellwood Bridge Project groundbreaking last week.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Last week I sat down with Polly Trottenberg, the Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Asst. Sec. Trottenberg was in town to deliver a $17.7 million check for the Sellwood Bridge Project. I caught up with her at Clever Cycles on SE Hawthorne Blvd. We talked about the role of activists, the new era of highway funding, the CRC project, and more.

Below is the transcript of our conversation.

What’s your role at the DOT?

“For us, the real measure of success is when complete streets and integrated roadway design is part of how we do business in this country.”

“The policy shop has a big portfolio, one of the biggest things is we run the TIGER program [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] and it’s been a fantastic experience. It’s given us a chance — because it was a new program and Congress gave us a lot of flexibility in how to do it — for us to really push some of the policies we really care about.

We also spend a lot of time thinking about how we should re-design the current federal transportation programs. What can we do now in our time to improve the existing programs? When that debate really gets underway in Congress we’ll be very involved and trying to push things in the right direction.”

Speaking of debates, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently called for a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving. Why did that come from the NTSB and not the USDOT?

“As you know, Secretary LaHood has been at the forefront on the issue of distracted driving. The difference is the NTSB is in charge of investigating accidents and then afterwards making recommendations about what they think should be done. They are, to some degree, free from having to consider cost and practicalities in a way that we do at the DOT; we’re more the implementer of rules. We have to work with the Office of Management and Budget and we’re more charged with having to take those things into account.”

So, what do you make of their big announcement?

“It’s been very interesting since [NTSB] Chairman [Deborah] Hersman made that recommendation. If you’ve listened to the debate back-and-fourth, a lot of people said, ‘Of course we need to do this nationwide,’ but there’s also been push back from different quarters saying, ‘This is government overreach, we’ll never get people to do this, people are too attached to their cell phones.’ Other people are saying that’s what people felt about drunk driving, but look what we’ve accomplished.

I’m particularly proud of DOT and Secretary LaHood for really bringing this issue to the forefront. Obviously, he’s very focused particularly on cell phones, but distraction behind the wheel is much bigger than that. When you get in your car you’ve got your GPS, radio, smartphone… a lot of gizmos.”

Can we expect a follow-up to the NTSB’s recommendation from the DOT?

“Secretary LaHood has sort of said versions of that in the past… I think right now we’re going to be part of that debate and see where it goes. We are two independent agencies, obviously, we think the work they [the NTSB] do is tremendously important and we try to carry out their policies; but we don’t do all of them.”

Let’s switch gears back to the TIGER grant program: There are concerns that it specifically calls out almost every conceivable mode of transportation as being eligible for funds — except, “bike and ped” projects. Am I correct in assuming that it’s just the new normal that all roadway projects include adequate access for people to walk and bike?

“New normal is a wonderful way to put it. When the Obama Administration first came in, we’d have people say, ‘You should have a separate bikes and pedestrians mode like you’ve got a highways mode!’ And you know, we thought about it — and you know we’re true believers [in biking and walking] — but we said, ‘You know what, we shouldn’t separate it out, because really, it should be part of federal highways and it should be part of every roadway we design that it’s just part of what goes into them. And actually, let’s not ghettoize it and make it its own category. Instead, it should be an integrated part of all the roadway planning that we do.’

And one thing that has been fascinating to us in terms of TIGER is, pretty much everyone now who applies to TIGER makes that assumption. That’s the mark of success, when it’s baked into the way state DOTs do their regular business. We do like the separated bike network projects and we’ve done some of those in TIGER; but for us, the real measure of success is when complete streets and integrated roadway design is part of how we do business in this country.”

OK. I get how it works with TIGER; but that’s an exception. What about other funding pots where you don’t have as much control and oversight about what gets funded? Are you concerned that state DOTs and other agencies who don’t see “bicycling and pedestrian projects” in a list may see that as a sign that it doesn’t need to be a priority? And that they’ll spend in a way that doesn’t match your vision?

“The vision of spending around the country is all over the place. It depends on where you go. Typically as a federal agency, we try and leave as much as we can but we’re also a creature of politics in the whole country. And look, TIGER is just one piece of what we’re doing. As you probably know, we’ve done a lot at the design level with the new manual [the NACTO guide to developing bikeways is strongly supported by the USDOT] and a lot of the policy statements that we do at DOT to make it clear that we feel bikes are an equal mode and basically, that you have to include them in your design.

“There is such tremendous political energy and enthusiasm from the bike front… so that’s also part of how the change is going to come.”

So I think we’re trying to engage in culture change as well. Culture change is slow. We have some very willing partners and we have some partners that think the whole thing is stupid and wish they’d never have to deal with it but we’re a big, decentralized country so you sort of have to work it that way.

The goal is to integrate bikes, pedestrians and complete streets into projects from the start. It was interesting today hearing people talk about the Sellwood Bridge. Someone said to us, for all the old bridges here this will be the first time we get the bike and pedestrian into the design from the start instead of having to do a retrofit and we’re really going to get it right. That’s our real goal. There’s no question it takes time and it’s not just up to DOT, we need the help of the activist community on the ground in communities all over the country. That’s part of how local projects get designed and how state DOTs decide what they’re going to do — they hear from people on the ground. There’s only so much they can take from Washington, they also need to hear it locally. You know this because you’re part of it. There is such tremendous political energy and enthusiasm from the bike front… so that’s also part of how the change is going to come.”

You mentioned culture change, I want to ask you about the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). I was critical of Sec. LaHood in a recent editorial, saying that he can’t have it both ways when it comes to support the CRC and being for livability and a new vision for transportation. Seems to me if you truly believe in livability, at some point you have to take the tough stand and just say “No” to a highway widening mega-project. Do you think its fair to accuse the USDOT of trying to have it both ways?

“It’s a fair question. And look, we’re very familiar with that project and all of the controversy and the pros and cons. And you know, look, I mean honestly, transportation is a complicated business. On the one hand at the federal level you want to lead; on the other hand, pragmatically, you also have to respond to the local political desires and of course there are conflicts there. I know there is a lot of division on that project. Look, there’s a lot of political momentum behind that project and a lot of people support it and a lot of people who have very sensible critiques against it.

I think, at the federal level, you want to help culture change but to some degree you have to respond to what folks around the country want to do. In particular, the federal transportation program is very decentralized. If you go to other countries they’re amazed. In other countries the federal level of government has the bulk of the funding and makes the bulk of decisions about projects. That’s not how it works in the U.S. The bulk of transportation spending comes from the state level. The federal piece is smaller than the state pieces. We have some influence but our influence isn’t infinite and it certainly isn’t dictatorial.

That’s [the CRC is] a tough project, no question, and people feel pretty strongly on both sides of it. I think from Secretary LaHood’s point of view, he is also just, in addition to believing in livability, his political background is one of real belief in bipartisanship and working together. When a lot of local leaders and elected officials in a region come together, that’s important to him. So, I think in the case of the CRC that’s something he thought was pretty important, knowing full well there are people who totally disagree with him.”

Do you think there’s danger that the USDOT’s strong support for the project — even if it’s just verbal at this point — actually impacts the politics and the project’s momentum and that your support helps move a project forward that doesn’t mesh with your goals?

“Look, again, it’s a fair question. The one issue with that project is that the funding is still not in place. Whether our blessing of the next step of it will make the funding emerge… We’ll have to see.”

So the funding of the project will be another decision point for your office?

“The truth is, one thing we’re seeing all over the country is there are still a lot of places that want to see a lot of big and grand projects and the scale of funding that’s available at the state and national level is just not what it used to be. So that bigger conflict is looming in places all over the country. Certainly with the CRC that’s been the issue all along.”

So, what happens with a large project like the CRC? Are you saying this is the end of an era in terms of mega-projects?

“We’ll have to see how the politics shake out. Certainly, one thing that’s been interesting in the TIGER program is we got some really big applications to finish huge pieces of interstate highways, particularly down south. One of the things they say in that region of that county is that a lot of the Sunbelt grew up in the post-interstate era. One of their complaints is, ‘We don’t have the same level of interstate connections in some of our major cities as other parts of the country.’ There’s some truth to that — whether you think they lucked out or not is a different story — but building interstates on the scale that we did in the heyday of the the 50s and 60s, it’s just not clear that the federal and state resources will be there. Unless the politics and fiscal situation around transportation changes dramatically and we’re greatly raising gas taxes or looking for other big revenue sources.”

What if that happened? What if you pulled the economic realities of today out of the picture? What if we had all the money we wanted?

“That’s a nice hypothetical, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.”

How important is that economic piece in talking about which vision you think is the most important?

“We believe in the vision regardless of the economics of it. Again, in a field like transportation, which is pretty traditional and slow to change, the economic realities are certainly making communities all over the country re-think their really big plans. And look, I wouldn’t just say it’s on the big highways, sometimes it’s on the big transit plans too.

There are cities around the country that are realizing, ‘We’re struggling to keep the existing system running and operating well, maybe we can’t do that expansion.’ This is a problem across all modes. This country’s going to have to be smarter about transportation. I just don’t see in the foreseeable future we’re going to have gushing new revenue sources. It seems unlikely.”

I’d just correct you when you say “across all modes.” If we were making dedicated bikeway infrastructure, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the cost of transit lines or highways.

“Of course. I would say with bikes, there’s an area where you’re seeing tremendous expansions. In a lot of cities now, you know Janette Sadik-Khan and others are joking, ‘All I need is a bucket of green paint and I’ve made bike infrastructure happen.'”

So, do you think those economic realities make dedicated bikeway projects more feasible? More politically possible?

“Oh, I definitely think so. Particularly, in a lot of big cities there is no more place for capacity, you can only better utilize the capacity you have… And you may not have a lot of money to do it, so of course you’re going to look to more buses, more bike lanes etc… And you know, a lot of other cities are doing that right now. Portland led the way and now other places are catching up.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

“One thing that’s been so interesting for us at DOT for the past few years is, we travel around the country and find that so much of the political energy and enthusiasm is coming out of bike advocacy. It’s amazing. We went to LA for this re-authorization visit. This is LA, which people think of as the car city, and 300 bicycle activists showed up and took over the meeting. I just see that’s where the political energy is in transportation right now.

Thanks to you and folks like you that have helped bring that to the fore. It really matters in Wahsington. We need it. We’re going to have some tough fights ahead I think. On the one hand, as you point out, economically constrained times may make people think creatively but there’s also the backlash: ‘We can’t do frivolous things like bikes!’ There are competing tensions that come out of having constrained resources. I think we need continued political energy on bike and pedestrian projects in how important they are and talking about their benefits and showing, particularly, that it’s not just the product for the elites but that there’s widespread support for these projects.”

What do you think accounts for that energy and enthusiasm you saw in LA?

“You have a mode of transportation that’s inexpensive to build and inexpensive to operate in which you burn no oil and you emit no carbon. It helps reduce obesity, people who engage in it reconnect with their communities and they loove it! It’s a really unique form of transportation. So it’s not surprising, since we’ve started to re-accommodate it once again in our streets, of course people are taking to it…

It’s just strength in numbers. It’s a nice synergy: As cities have grown more accommodating of bikes, the number of people riding increases; and as the number of people riding increases, they love it and they become passionate and engaged and that political energy is genuine and important.

There was a hearing Secretary LaHood went to when he and Congressman Latourette (R-OH) got into a back and forth on bikes and the Congressman said something like, ‘Bikes are stupid and a waste of money.’ He was set upon by the bike supporters in his district — I don’t think he knew he had so many and he basically kind of backtracked. That’s really, really, really important and you’ve got to do it.

In Washington, we’re fighting, you’ve got to be in it for the long run and keep up your energy even when times get dismal.”


Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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John S
John S
12 years ago

Very nice comments from US DOT. Its encouraging to to see that people are finally getting it. That it’s not fair, smart, nor supportive of Freedom, to have only one transportation option.

In my opinion it’s a basic human right to transport yourself by your own power (e.g. walk somewhere if you wish. I also feel human power should have priority over all other forms of transport on any LOC -‘line of communication’). Sounds reasonable, right?

But in many places in the US this isn’t possible. You have to drive to walk, or drive to ride. And its simply because of the design of the infrastructure. We are so lucky here in Portland.

12 years ago
Reply to  John S

You nailed it on the head with the freedom comment – people should be able to walk, bike, and drive in safe environments without worrying about being killed.

That’s what always puzzles me when certain groups (usually groups that claim to love “freedom” the most but want to use the government to regulate things they don’t like or deem immoral) have blinders on when it comes to transportation freedom.

Anything that isn’t driving is somehow this crazy communist plot to get rid of cars. But putting walking and cycling on a more level playing field is increasing the overall freedom people have to move about as the wish. Locking people into the single auto mode is more akin fascism.

As someone who loves cycling, I just want to see it made safer for everyone who wishes to enjoy being out there on a bike. I don’t want to take the choice to drive away from other people. I drive myself – but I’d certainly enjoy driving LESS, as I dislike spending loads of money on gas and maintenance.

Anyways, I digress. Good interview Jonathan.

Hugh Johnson
Hugh Johnson
12 years ago
Reply to  John S

*some* of us are. please realize there are large areas of this city that have not seen the light of day when it comes to good bike infrastructure.

12 years ago

Nice interview, Jonathan.
But I have to say I’m very disappointed that she is so willing to waffle on questions of federal leadership. What happened to the LaHood who made a strong impassioned pitch for bicycles early on? Her words about wanting to lead but respecting local voices (w/r/t the CRC) ring hollow. The funding (or lack thereof) provides such an obvious opening to the Feds to lead – away from big unfundable highway expansion mega-projects. Hopeless.

12 years ago
Reply to  9watts

… leadership. What happened to the LaHood who made a strong impassioned pitch for bicycles early on? Her words about wanting to lead but respecting local voices …

The problem is public education that bicycling is not a waste of time and money.

It is so obvious to us here in Portlandia that we hardly even get why it is a problem elsewhere. So I looked up more on Congressman Steven LaTourette.
The best link was LaTourette supports Complete Streets; receives League award from Ohio delegation; at the bottom are three other links to stories about him chronicling his conversion from bike hater to bike supporter.

There are unfortunately 435 representatives and 100 senators. Odds are less than 10% understand that bicycles are important. The USDOT does not have the funding nor infrastructure to educate all those in power that truly need a whack with the Clue Bat or the Cluehammer 40,000.

Lois Moss
12 years ago
Reply to  q`Tzal

Congressman LaTourette became enlightened and educated because we tailored the message to him. He understood bicycles being used for recreation, but he didn’t comprehend that people in northern climates could actually want to use bicycles for transportation. Rather than talk about lowering pollution, health benefits and livable communities, we talked about cycling being low cost to the user and to the community. The thing that seemed to tip his opinion the most was an issue of “Minnesota Business Magazine” with a cover story about the millions of $$ generated by bicycle companies, tour companies and retailers in MN.

12 years ago

At least they’re talking the talk, and that shows great progress. I wonder if Jonathan would have even gotten an interview 10 years ago. Of course, we could step back 10 years (or 50) depending on the outcome of the next election. But changes to our transportation infrastructure seem inexorable at some point. Good interview.

Darren Flusche
12 years ago

Very good interview.

Joe Rowe
Joe Rowe
12 years ago

Awesome interview. Voters need to make the democrats back track on the CRC.

Ms. Trottenberg forgets this local slogan: If we don’t build now we lose Federal funding.

The bike community should demand that Earl Blumenauer amend the jobs bill to remove the CRC.

Earl will never do that. Earl silently supports the CRC. What’s worse? His friends with the Bike Walk Pac will not send him the CRC questionnaire. They say the race is not competitive.

Vern Levy
Vern Levy
12 years ago

Bikes are only one form of transportation. People and commerce need to get across the Columbia River.

Mia Birk
Mia Birk
12 years ago

nice interivew Jonathan.