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Application of Advanced Technology to Transportation - Athens, Greece



MAY 28, 2008

On behalf of President Bush and the United States Department of Transportation, I am delighted to join you in the beautiful city of Athens.

Thank you for inviting me to participate in the 10th International Conference on Application of Advanced Technologies in Transportation.

I recognize all the hard work that has gone in to putting this year’s conference together  -- and I’m grateful to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Transportation Research Board, and the National Technical University of Athens for making this such a success.

You know, I was struck as I left the airport to come into the city by the extent to which Athens appears to be undergoing a new Renaissance. Your metro system is truly a work of art – and a real testament to the forward-looking leaders here who understand the value of investing in 21st century public transportation infrastructure
. . . with a bit of archeological history thrown in for good measure.

That know-how  --  and can-do attitude  --  is something we have always valued in America. In fact, we have an old saying – who knows, it might even be from Greece:  “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

I’m sure you understand its meaning.  We’re always looking for innovative ways to solve our biggest challenges, and make life even better for our citizens. . . . just as you are doing here.

Technology plays a vital role in achieving these goals – by helping to make us safer, more productive and efficient, and by enhancing the customer experience.

We need an enterprising spirit in the United States, now more than ever, because there’s no question. . . our transportation landscape poses a number of big challenges. . . .

We’re seeing more and more traffic on our roadways and at our airports . . .  

We’re confronting record-high fuel prices (yes, we’re only just beginning to feel this pain). . .  . 

Rising prices for commodities like steel, aluminum, and concrete are driving up the costs and risks associated with planning, contracting, and building new transportation infrastructure. . . .

Meanwhile, we’ve got an enormous number of aging transportation assets  --  bridges, tunnels, highways, rail systems  -- that must be kept in a state of good repair. . . And this, too, is increasingly costly.

Our nation’s ability to invest  --  and re-invest  -- in its transportation infrastructure has received a great deal of media attention lately. . . 

Many newspaper columnists and various advocacy groups have publicly called for greater federal, state, and local investments in infrastructure.

But the federal government’s share of funds for big, capital surface transportation projects is beginning to shrink, not grow. . . 

Our nation depends, in large measure, on fuel tax revenues to fund a significant share of highway and transit projects. . . But as fuel consumption declines and fuel efficiency improves, these revenues are going down. . .

Within a year, we expect to have a $3 billion negative balance in the Highway Trust Fund account that pays for such projects.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is committed to facing these challenges head-on,  in order to keep our economy moving,   and our population mobile. . . .

And clearly, we need to leverage any and all technologies that promise to help us succeed.

One of the most important areas where we’re counting on technology to make a real difference,  is in managing congestion.

In the U.S. today, traffic congestion costs us about $80 billion a year in wasted fuel and lost productivity. . .  In our most densely populated urban areas, such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, traffic congestion has reduced mobility for millions of commuters, businesses, and tourists.

By the way. . . .  This is a problem where I have personally felt the impact. . .

As the former owner of an international trucking and transportation company, my drivers were forced to waste many unproductive and unprofitable hours stuck in traffic, while trying to drive loads into and out of New York City.

There are many root causes for the current situation.

One root cause of our congestion problem is that, for more than half a century  --  ever since our interstate highway system was built  --  the users of this system have essentially gotten it for “free.”  Our taxes do not come close to paying for the actual costs of our roadways.

In the U.S. we pay 18.5 cents in taxes on fuel. That’s far different than the $4 or so in equivalent taxes that Europeans pay.

Nor have we added much capacity to our highway systems—at least, not relative to the dramatic growth in usage.

Clearly, we need to find a new economic equation that’s fair to all Americans  --  while allowing us to meet our infrastructure obligations.

One way to do that is through congestion pricing on our busiest roadways. Congestion pricing could go a long way to help reduce traffic in a densely populated city like New York  -- just as it has done in London. In fact, we know it could generate more than $350 million a year for transportation projects for the New York region. Unfortunately, the local political climate is not quite ready to take this step. . . but I think they’ll get there, eventually.

Tolling is another option, that holds great promise. Today, we have the ability to quickly and easily install high-speed open road tolling equipment on our busiest highways  --  without requiring a single driver to slow down, thanks to technology.

The toll revenues we’re able to capture this way,  will generate billions of dollars needed to maintain and upgrade our national transportation and transit infrastructure.

High-speed tolling is just beginning to catch on in the U.S. Florida, Texas, and Virginia are already attracting billions in new transportation investment, using this approach.

Virginia, for example  --  the state closest to our nation’s capital  --  will be able to widen one of the most congested highways in America,  using a combination of variable electronic tolls and private financing.

We’re confident that high-speed electronic tolling will be widely adopted in the months and years to come.

Technology has many other applications in our transportation landscape.

Our Corridors of the Future initiative provides funding for the six major highways that carry nearly a quarter of the nation’s interstate traffic,   to undertake numerous approaches to streamlining travel and reducing congestion. . .

One approach involves integrating real-time traffic technology, like lane management, that can match available capacity on roads to changing traffic demands.

Cities like San Francisco are also beginning to implement an array of traffic management plans. . .  such as variable pricing for major roadways and off-street parking garages. . . and widespread traffic and transit signaling systems designed to keep cars, buses, and light rail trains running smoothly. . .

San Francisco is one of six major U.S. cities to receive federal funding for initiatives like these. In fact, we’re investing close to $1 billion this year, in this effort.

We also believe in technology’s contribution to a cleaner environment.

President Bush has directed $1.2 billion toward the successful development of commercially viable hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and an infrastructure that can support them. In addition, the FTA has spent $125 million on hydrogen fuel cell buses. We’re very proud to be actively contributing to environmentally responsible transit through this program.

The FTA, also provides more than $70 million annually in transportation-related research grants to public universities and other organizations. . . 

Our portfolio of research and demonstration projects includes bus rapid transit, hybrid electric and fuel cell research, real-time train location, and more. . . .

While I believe in the value of pure research, we also need a robust cost/benefit analysis and results-oriented research, to ensure we realize the full value of our investments.

Looking ahead, I’m sure we can all imagine a future where, in big cities around the world, traffic flows seamlessly. . . all vehicles run on clean fuels. . . highway crashes are extremely rare. . . and travelers have many efficient, reliable modes to choose from – whether bus, heavy or light rail, or automobile.

I don’t think anyone could argue with the premise that technology opens doors for transportation systems and solutions that previous generations never imagined possible.

But we must keep all of this in perspective.

Ultimately, technology is a valuable and strategic tool  --  but it is not a panacea.

First and foremost, we all need to ensure that our transportation systems are on a sound financial footing, in order to realize the benefits that technology offers. . .

After all, technology alone does not enable you to address a five-year maintenance backlog on an aging rail system.

Second, technology changes at a such a great rate, we must ensure that government or transportation agencies avoid investing in applications that are obsolete by the time they are implemented.

That’s why I believe we must never view technology as an end in itself. . . . Rather, we must manage for results – and consider which technology applications best help us achieve results, especially as conditions change over time.

Third, we must not become so enamored of leading-edge technologies that we lose sight of the need to keep our commonplace machinery in good working order.

This is a lesson we are learning the hard way in the U.S. . . .

For example, New York City Transit  --  the largest transit operator in the country  --  spent close to $1 billion to install more than 200 new elevators and escalators in the subway system over the last decade.  . . . 

But these systems break down on a regular basis because the technology does not operate in the real-world environment and technicians lacked proper training, among other factors.

As the Greeks say, “All things good to know, are difficult to learn.”

Ultimately, the future of any successful transportation infrastructure rests not only with technology, but with the ability of ordinary citizens. . . business leaders. . . and elected officials. . . to work together toward a vision of what a national transportation infrastructure should look like. . . . . . A vision that allows us all to keep people and goods flowing as efficiently as possible, within and across our borders. . . .

This is a vision, ultimately, about strategic mobility management  -- not about one mode versus another, not rail versus bus versus highway versus aviation.

I’ve often said that transportation is the circulatory system of our nation’s economy  --  and the world’s. Mobility fosters economic growth, freedom, and so much more.

We simply cannot function without it.

In closing, I want to leave you with a wonderful and profound Greek proverb:

A society grows great, when old men plant trees, whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

There is much for us to learn from one another, as we seek to adapt our transportation infrastructure to the demands of the 21st century --  and beyond.

I hope that all of us may rise to the challenge.
Thank you.


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