Recommitting to road safety

This Safety Today column published in July/August 2021 issue

Nathan R. Smith / July 07, 2021 / 3 minute read
Nathan R. Smith

Over the last several years, uttering the phrase, “It’s infrastructure week,” often elicited chuckles and smirks from transportation advocates, members of Congress, and congressional staff.

It wasn’t that there was less interest in infrastructure policy, but rather that leaders struggled to finalize a robust package after years of promises. ATSSA and our infrastructure partners on Capitol Hill have been working hard to change that narrative and have begun seeing success to that end.

On March 31, President Joe Biden released his plan to invest in U.S. infrastructure. The wide-ranging plan, which had four distinct infrastructure components, included $571 billion for transportation projects.

For the first time in an administration’s infrastructure plan, there was a specific roadway safety section, and $20 billion in funding. This was above the typical safety eligibilities that fall within the highway investments section of the plan.

Of that $20 billion, $8 billion would have been targeted to increase funding for the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), while another $10 billion would be to create a new “Safe Streets for All” program dedicated to investing in Vision Zero projects.

This proposal represents significant progress in moving toward zero deaths on U.S. roadways. We know safer roads save lives, and projects funded by HSIP are proven to be lifesaving, cost-effective countermeasures that do just that.

The fatality rate on rural roads is twice that of non-rural roads and one of the biggest challenges to that is sheer financial resources. Additionally, in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), Congress made it clear that federal funds can be used on any public roads for safety. However, many local, rural jurisdictions simply do not have the resources to deploy safety devices on their road networks.

On May 20, Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) introduced the High Risk Rural Roads Safety Act in the Senate, which would ensure that increased funding in HSIP would be targeted to rural roads and tribal roads.

Two days later, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee released its five-year, $304 billion surface transportation package, which includes a significant focus on roadway safety. The legislation included $16.8 billion for HSIP, $120 million for tribal road safety, and up to $300 million dedicated to rural road safety related to lane departures. Additionally, it allows for safety contingency funds to be 100% federally funded, so roadway work zones can have the most cutting-edge safety protections for workers and road users alike. The committee made quick work of the proposal, passing it through on May 26.

One of the ways members of Congress shine a light on a specific issue is through the formation of congressional caucuses. Reps. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) have done exactly that in creating the bipartisan Congressional Road Safety Caucus, focused on highlighting the need for Congress to ensure safety is the top priority for the transportation authorization and infrastructure package.

On April 14, Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) introduced the High Risk Rural Roads Safety Grant Program Act in the House, which creates a new competitive grant program for local jurisdictions and tribal nations to focus federal funding on rural and tribal road safety projects. Funded at $600 million annually, this proposal would give a needed boost to targeting safety challenges on rural and tribal roadways.

On June 10, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee passed its version of a surface transportation authorization, sending it to the House floor for consideration, likely this summer. The legislation, which includes a focus on roadway safety infrastructure, features increased funding for HSIP and a trigger mechanism mandating that states invest in rural road safety projects if their rural road fatality rates are over the national median. Additionally, a proposal, led by Reps. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), directs the U.S. DOT to create a roadway worker protection working group that will be a critical component of work zone fatality reduction collaboration.

Since January, Congress and the White House have been putting forth proposals that not only talk about roadway safety but also dedicate significant federal resources to dramatically reduce fatalities and serious injuries toward zero. These are critical steps to making roadways safer and saving thousands of lives. Although the job is not yet done, this initial recommitment to roadway safety has the potential to make 2021 the kickoff year to a half-decade of roadway safety.

About the Author

Smith is ATSSA Vice President of Engagement.

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