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USDOT Shake Up Continues

UPDATE: Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio named Polly Trottenberg to head the city’s Department of Transportation. Trottenberg will be leaving her post as US DOT Under Secretary for Policy. While designing the TIGER program, Trottenberg did something extraordinary when she broke down silos across agencies to ensure the program funded much needed multi-modal projects — and oversaw the creation of a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account the benefits of biking, walking and transit to a community. Read more about the transition here.

Two top officials at the US Department of Transportation announced their departure last week, precipitating a third major change in leadership at the agency.

First to announce his departure was Deputy Secretary John Porcari – the number two at the agency now headed by Anthony Foxx. Porcari, a former head of the Maryland transportation agency, is leaving for the private sector and will be replaced by Victor Mendez. Mendez is currently the Federal Highway Administrator, and there is no word yet on who will replace him at the top of FHWA.

Then on Friday, David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced he is leaving, and his Deputy David Friedman will take his place in the interim.

All these positions are political appointments, which means they are subject to Senate confirmation and speaks to the importance of the roles these people play. FHWA and NHTSA are major agencies overseeing everything from the Interstate highway system and bridge safety to fuel efficiency standards and national speed limits — the Office of the Secretary (OST), where the Deputy Secretary resides, helps oversee all the various transportation agencies.

So what does all this mean for bikes?

The departure of Deputy Secretary Porcari is a real shame for our issues. He, like his former boss Ray LaHood, just seemed to get the whole livability thing and the role bikes (and walking, and transit) play in creating communities with real transportation choices and a higher quality of life. Earlier this year, he helped hasten the adoption of FHWA’s guidance memo that recognized the NACTO bike guide as an appropriate source of design information — something which probably wouldn’t have happened without the attention of OST.

At the 2013 National Bike Summit, Porcari (pictured above) said that he had been working to build the Anacostia River Trail through out his past 5 jobs.  At a meeting last week, he said the final piece of that trail is under construction.  Way to see a job through to the end! (Photo by Brian Palmer).

His replacement, Victor Mendez, has been head of the aforementioned FHWA for several years, after a career in the Arizona Department of Transportation. Mendez doesn’t come as naturally to the bike issue as Porcari – although he is a keen runner – and FHWA hasn’t really embraced the emerging national bike culture under his tenure. He is a fan of new technology and its transportation applications, especially related to traffic safety, and tried to move new things along in a traditionally conservative agency with his “Every Day Counts” initiative.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland came a long way on bike issues this year. He attended both USDOT regional Bicycle Safety Summits this year , and ended up hosting the event in Minneapolis when Secretary LaHood was called away (to the announcement of Foxx as the next Secretary). He clearly listened and learned a lot during these sessions – and hopefully his successor will inherit a file full of initiatives to improve traffic safety for all roadway users, including bicyclists and pedestrians.

These positions are important for our pro-bicycling agenda. Someone who really cares about increasing bicycle use and improving bike safety can move an entire agency and all the state and local transportation agencies with whom they work. A simple paragraph or two – like the FHWA bike design guidance memo – can open the doors to change, because it matters what these agencies say and do.

That’s why we’ll be looking for the next FHWA Administrator, their counterpart at NHTSA, and the Office of the Secretary to support a non-motorized safety performance measure and to embrace the goal of dramatically increasing bike use in the United States.

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