P3s in Transportation Conference panel, left to right: moderator of Deborah Brown of WSP; Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn; Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson; and Meg Pirkle, chief engineer of the Georgia Department of Transportation.

By John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, & Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA

Key officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), the White House, and several state lawmakers and transportation department leaders addressed critical legislative, regulatory, and market issues at ARTBA’s 31st Annual Public-Private Partnerships (P3) in Transportation Conference.

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Administrator Nicole Nason July 19 said she is optimistic about passage of surface transportation reauthorization legislation, based on the amount of continuing information requests her office is getting from Capitol Hill.

“The Senate is taking action and moving in coming weeks,” Nason said. “(Congress) is sending us lots of paper to review, and we are responding to technical requests. There’s also interest in the House in getting a bill and in getting something done.”

Nason detailed FHWA’s efforts to simplify and provide guidance to the transportation industry on the complexities of the P3 marketplace. Specifically she pointed to the recent issuance of the P3 Procurement Guide,  developed in coordination with the Build America Bureau and on which ARTBA members offered comments early in the process.

Nason said USDOT is committed not only to funding new transportation projects, but also to improving regulations that affect project costs and risks.

“We know that delays increase risk,” she said. “The USDOT is actively addressing regulatory reform to cut red tape – but not corners.”

Alex Herrgott, appointed last fall by President Donald Trump as executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, emphasized the administration’s commitment to reducing regulatory burdens.  He showed attendees an example of an on-line project dashboard, intended to help the public and stakeholders track regulatory approvals and heighten accountability for the federal agencies involved.

Dan DeBono, chief infrastructure funding officer at USDOT, said that the agency is “open for business” through grants and loans, but needs help to spread the word from people in the industry. “As much demand as we get, I still meet a lot of people who do not know of these programs,” he said in his keynote.

Dan DeBono

DeBono said USDOT wants to see more state and local leadership, both in project selection and decision making, and providing sources of capital.

“We like the idea of seeding construction projects,” he said. “The more capital a project brings, the more likely USDOT will provide additional funding.”

DeBono was asked if U.S. immigration laws could be flexed to accommodate skilled design and construction workers.

“There could be room in having a targeted program like we do in information technology,” he replied, but noted: “There’s not a labor force in size to begin to go to work on a $1 trillion infrastructure package.”

A panel of three state transportation department leaders (top photo) has praised the Trump administration One Federal Decision program. A 2017 executive order consolidated all permitting decisions for major projects under one federal “lead” agency and set a two-year average for completing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on transportation projects.

“It’s made a difference” said Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn “It’s absolutely a step in the right direction.”

Meg Pirkle, chief engineer of the Georgia Department of Transportation, emphasized the importance of state DOTs working with the contractor community. “If the industry isn’t with you, you are not going to get anywhere,” she said.

Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson, who is his state’s first African-American DOT leader, urged the private sector to increase the use of minorities, women, and small business on major projects. “If you did it on your own without the [government] mandate, there would be no need for the mandate.”

On that topic, the conference also featured a session on compliance issues relating to P3 projects and the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, with presenters including FHWA officials and Maryland State Highway Administrator Greg Slater. A dozen federal, state and local DOT officials also gathered for an annual “owners-only” peer exchange to discuss issues of common interest to P3 project sponsors.

Alabama state Sen. Chris Elliott and Arkansas state Sen. Mathew Pitsch, both Republicans, discussed the challenges of introducing P3 projects to their state. They emphasized the importance of educating and communicating with other lawmakers and the public.

“Lack of communication on the front end, of communicating the benefits, has been a big problem,” said Elliott. “Communication is important, not just to make sure the project is successful, but to make sure there is a project.”