Meet the new head of the Federal Highway Administration

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne. The Federal...

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), part of the Transportation Department, must oversee spending of some $350 billion from the infrastructure bill. Now the FHWA has a new executive director. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the 20-year veteran of the agency, Gloria Shepherd.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And just making sure we can set the scene here just spend a few seconds telling us precisely what the Federal Highway Administration does. Probably obvious to you, but I’m not sure everyone exactly knows.

Gloria Shepherd: The Federal Highway Administration is a mode of the U.S. Department of Transportation. And our mission is to oversee and to provide for state administered, federally assisted program. And that means working with the states and some other stakeholders like the metropolitan planning organizations, including some locals also to administer their highway system. And the highway system includes not only roads, but includes bridges, sometimes ferries, and there’s also interconnections among the modes. So you have multimodal projects. So a project that crosses not only Federal Highways, but Federal Transit and also Federal Rail Administration. So we work with all 50 states, and we work with D.C. and Puerto Rico to ensure that their programs but that their highway programs are being constructed and maintain in a way to preserves the integrity of the American economy.

Tom Temin: All right, and now there is $350 billion, specifically from this new bipartisan infrastructure bill, how does that compare to what you normally have in a given year for grants and so on?

Gloria Shepherd: OK, this bill is a larger bill than I’ve ever seen in my transportation lifespan, including FHWA and previously in two other states. So the infrastructure bill, as you said, has provided $350 million of funding over five years, including the largest dedicated bridge investment, since the construction of the Interstate Highway System, that investment has helped launch 2,800 bridge repairs and replacement projects across the country. We’re also working to implement more than a dozen new highway programs under the law that can reduce carbon emissions, make our transportation system more resilient and remove barriers to connecting communities improve mobility and access to economic opportunity.

Tom Temin: So 350 billion over five years. I mean, what do you normally have in a year?

Gloria Shepherd: In the 200s, 250s, 260s. This was obviously an astronomical increase in funding for the highway system.

Tom Temin: You’ve mentioned 2,800 bridge repairs and a dozen new highway projects. Are the applications coming in at a rate that you’re able to handle them?

Gloria Shepherd: Yeah, you got to make a distinction between the formula program and the grant program. The formula programs are disseminated allocated by law. So that happens automatically the state’s get their allotments and they determine how to spend those dollars based on their state’s needs. Then you have the grant programs, I think what you’re alluding to where we have put out a Notice of Funding Opportunity and potential recipients eligible recipients of the different grants will apply for the grants. And the successful receivers of those grants will then implement the projects.

Yeah, this is a significant difference and increase in our workload, because obviously, the formula programs go out as usual year after year after year in the states implement them. And we’re tied into the state system and their financial systems are tied into ours. But working with individual applicants is somewhat different because they don’t have the same level of expertise and specifications and systems that the states have. So we have to do more outreach and interaction with them to make sure that first they meet the qualification second that they can implement the projects, which means getting through to the NEPA process and getting their program to get their projects on the Statewide Transportation Implementation Programs which are run by the metropolitan planning organization. So it requires a lot more interaction from our divisions with direct recipients way more so than with the states.

Tom Temin: So if a small town or medium-sized city say once a bypass road, and they apply for a grant to it, you just don’t hand out the money. They’ve got a lot of interaction to do at their own state levels, and also at the federal level before that can get built.

Gloria Shepherd: They have a lot of interaction to do with us. Yeah. And if the state is helping them administer it, the states will be the project sponsor. If the state is not helping them implement it, then the Federal Highway becomes the project sponsor. And there’s a lot more interaction between the divisions and the actual applicant.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Gloria Shepherd. She is the new executive director of the Federal Highway Administration. And with all of this extra spending from the infrastructure bill, did you also get a few billets in the agency so that you can get some people in to help with the workload?

Gloria Shepherd: Yes, we did. We received additional dollars for staffing and other resources that we need to carry out these kinds of projects. What we did first of all was we convened a resource and staffing workgroup to access the hiring needs and how to implement better implement the IJJA. The group included representatives from all over the parts of our agencies. And based on the findings and thorough evaluations, our program we approved and hired, process of hiring 215 new positions, new people in positions to help support the critical objective established by Congress. Our plan has maintained flexibility to add additional resources as contracts are awarded, and as deemed necessary for state and local partners ability to implement the program. Additionally, we have strategic staffing plans in place, we maximize the use of various hiring flexibilities, basically, so we can get the appropriate staff on as quickly as possible. So we’ve received some flexibilities and being able to bring people on quickly.

Tom Temin: And what do people need to know I mean, I imagine they have to know the I can’t imagine the myriad of regulations and laws regarding the granting process, regarding the establishment of projects in different areas. And all of the overlapping jurisdictions and laws. Do they also need to know things about roads and bridges and how they’re built and some of the engineering aspects of it?

Gloria Shepherd: That’s correct. Based on the program areas, we just mentioned, infrastructure and the role of the construction and implementation, they will bring on the appropriate staff, perhaps people with engineering backgrounds, people with pavement backgrounds, and people whose backgrounds are directly related to the implementation of their side of the program, getting projects in the process, that’s more the environmental and planning side of house. So they will bring people on who have backgrounds in those areas, and know how to get the applicants through the process the NEPA process and get their plans in a position where they can be awarded from the statewide system.

Tom Temin: And by the way, you’ve been in transportation, as you pointed out for quite a few decades now, at the state level, and the federal level, has there been any advancement in the way roads themselves are built? I mean, if you look at every other area of cars are way different than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, how about roads are they still basically the same six layers that they were when the Romans started?

Gloria Shepherd: There’s been a lot of changes in the technology and the way roads are built, for example, safety considerations, the design of roads and how they’re designed to maximize safety, because you know, you have to consider that everyone’s not going to drive the signed state speeds. And so if you need to design roads that will actually enhance the safety for those who may not adhere to the laws. You also have conditions of different roads and the pavement materials that go into pavements, obviously, to be more sustainable, and to be more adaptable with regard to climate change, and resiliency, and adaptation. So, you know, a lot of different places in the country have different climatic events, weather conditions. So they need to use different pavement ingredients in order to sustain the impact of climate change. And so there’s a lot more science, a lot more technology that goes into building roads, than even back when interstate was first developed under Eisenhower. So there’s been a monumental changes in infrastructure and how it’s developed and implemented. Basically, you know, there’s a lot of safety improvements that go into implementing highways, like you have to rumble strips, and you have to improved guard rails and all those kinds of things in order to enhance and advance safety needs of the driving public. Because as you know, the fatality rates for drivers and other users, bike, ped users have been astronomical. And so in order to try to alleviate those numbers and mitigate those numbers, there have to be other kinds of technology and consideration used in the highway system, than were present in previous times.

Tom Temin: Sure. And you have had an abiding interest in this. What draws you to the transportation and road and bridge infrastructure part of everything you could be doing in the federal government?

Gloria Shepherd: What draws me to transportation, people think of transportation as highways and bridge and pavements and things like that. It’s more than that. It’s about reconnecting communities also, because, you know, in the past, highways were built through communities without regard to the impact to those communities. So there’s the people side of highways as well as the technical side of highways. So the question is, how can we use the transportation and specifically a highway system to reconnect communities that were historically divided. And so working with the states and the locals to develop ideas to implement ideas like caps, you know, put over highways so it can reconnect communities that were separated, or implement bike pedestrian pathways that will link communities or look at displacements, that highways have caused throughout its history, and not just saying, OK, we’re displacing 100 people here, you know, it doesn’t matter, but give them fair market value. No, you got to look at displacement and see the impact on the community because of the transportation system, and how we can provide mitigation that is not only required, but that is available to enhance those communities. So highways it’s more than just about bricks, cement, pavements and all that, it’s about people also. And so I think, you know, in addition to the technological side of it, but people thought of it, it’s what attracts me also.

Tom Temin: And I’m curious about one of the aspects the administration has been pushing and seems to be where the country is going right or wrong. And that is, with respect to being able to charge the electrical cars anywhere. Now, of course, the highway system, you know, you just put a tank in the ground, and you can build a gas station. What’s the thinking in how to make sure that the infrastructure is in place, because there have to be wires and everything and not just the stations for roads of the future and retrofitting existing roads to be able to have the convenience of charging where people need to?

Gloria Shepherd: You’re absolutely right. And the USDOT, specifically Federal Highway has worked with the Department of Energy to form a joint office to look at the National Electric Vehicle Improvement Program, and a joint office are members of both DOT and DOE and others who will look at setting up corridors, alternative fuel corridors and a system really a corridor system, not ad hoc, you know, charging stations here in China, but actually build out corridors. So people who drive electric vehicles can accept those kinds of fueling without being concerned about not being able to make it to the next station for the connection. So this administration has dedicated a large amount of money and creative joint office that is basically working with the states that have worked with the state actually to help the states develop state plans. And all the states, every single state has state plans on how they would implement an electric vehicle charging stations. And the success of this program will do wonders for the reduction in greenhouse gases. And that’s obviously one of the major purposes of this program. So working with the joint office, we have reached out to all the states. And we provided direct technical assistance support to the state in implementing electric vehicle infrastructure, system and plan. And we will continue to do so we have some upcoming events that will further the implementation of EV charging stations.

Tom Temin: I guess the main thing needed now is a universal plug.

Gloria Shepherd: A universal plug and other ports that different vehicles will use a little prior to so they can use these EV charging stations because it’s not only one port, there’s like four ports to make it more complete port. You have Tesla, and you have CCS and a number of other ones, Chademo. And so the idea is to make the charging stations function in a way to accommodate whatever port a car has.

Tom Temin: Any old port and a dead battery. And you mentioned there are a dozen new highway projects already anything recognizable, anything that might be in a place people have heard of?

Gloria Shepherd: There are projects that are recognizable, I think people are pleased with. Some of them are still in environmental process. So they haven’t completed the environmental process. So don’t want to name them specifically, because I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of the NEPA process. If you look across the country, and you look at the major like bridges in a lot of states, you will see that their plan says they have plans to either do major system preservation or reconstruction to building actually new bridges and roads to accommodate the sometimes the growing population in certain states. I mean, the country is not the same. I mean, there’s parts that look at the East Coast, and especially the Northeast that has an older infrastructure. So those states are maybe more into system preservation. But if you look at population shifts, and where people according to the Census have moved to there may be need for a new construction, new roads, new bridges. So if you look across the country and you pick a state you can see a major project most likely in all those states that are designed to promote the continuous flow of not only cars but of freight because freight is a major part of the economy. I mean, we hear a lot about freight these days. And the key to having a robust economy is to have a good highway system. And the highway system where not only automobiles and access to roads and bridges, but trucks, and then you, we work with FRA to make sure that there’s interconnection between the railroads and the highways, because everything doesn’t move by highway sometime, you know, a lot of kinds of moves by rail. If you look at the news these days, you can understand the importance of rail.

Tom Temin: Yeah, if you ever seen those rail cars stacked with semi trailers, then you can see the intermodal quality of it all. Sure. And any chance of getting a tunnel say from the beltway to the ballpark?

Gloria Shepherd: Oh, you’re talking to BW Parkway loop?

Tom Temin: Yeah, we need a tunnel right to the Nationals Park, there’s no chance of that?

Gloria Shepherd: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I know, I don’t know, tunnels, you have to ask the state about that. But I’ve got to tell you, a rule of thumb is tunnels are very expensive, and very complicated. One of the reasons is because when you start digging below the earth, you don’t know what you’re going to find as far as soil conditions, and other conditions. And you know, tunnels require a lot of things that highways do not, you had to look at the ventilation in tunnels, you have to look at, like shoulders on highways, you have to look at emergency evacuations from tunnels. So the states, they find tunnels very expensive. And for the most part, we don’t see a lot of tunnels and the states’ plans, you might see some, but by and large, not a lot.

Tom Temin: And by the way, since you are running now, the Federal Highway Administration, do you like to drive?

Gloria Shepherd: You know, driving is a necessity at some points, and I actually prefer taking the Metro because it’s easier. It’s only like three miles from my house. And, you know, you’ve made a few changes. And now that Metro is running well, again, you know, it’s reasonable, but there are times when I need to drive because of work hours or meetings or whatever we need to drive. But, you know, I enjoy both, I would think. I’m multimodal.

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