Leadership Shakeup at U.S. DOT: What Will It Mean for Transit and Biking?

Two of the Obama administration’s top transportation officials are heading elsewhere, creating a leadership shake-up at U.S. DOT.

As you may have heard, U.S. DOT Under Secretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg was tapped by incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to head the city’s transportation department this week. Also on the way out is Deputy Secretary John Porcari, number two under Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Porcari is leaving for the private sector.

U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari is leaving for the private sector, one of a handful of high-ranking officials leaving the agency. Image: U.S. DOT

U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari is departing for the private sector, and he’s not the only high-ranking official leaving the agency. Image: U.S. DOT

Trottenberg’s most important contribution may have been shaping TIGER, the popular competitive grant program that helped fund items from the Atlanta streetcar to Rochester’s Inner-Loop highway teardown. She was also instrumental in FHWA’s endorsement of the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Bikeway Design Guide, giving the federal government’s seal of approval to protected bike lanes.

League of American Bicyclists Director Andy Clarke wrote on the league’s blog that Porcari had made major contributions to U.S. DOT’s sustainability efforts advanced under Ray LaHood:

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.

Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, said she has worked with both Trottenberg and Porcari and she is “sad to see them leave,” but optimistic that the agency’s progress won’t be slowed.

“I think they have been incredibly effective and instrumental in changing the course of that agency — sort of achieving Ray LaHood’s vision in making sure that U.S. DOT is responsive and relevant and really up to speed with what’s happening in terms of transportation across the country.”

Porcari will be replaced by Victor Mendez, who formerly ran the Federal Highway Administration, which Clarke called a “traditionally conservative” agency. Prior to his role at FHWA, Mendez worked for 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 wrote.

But Roskowski said Mendez has been supportive of her group’s efforts to advance high-quality bike infrastructure. He even attended the Green Lane Project’s kickoff last spring.

“In my experience, Victor Mendez has not been as deeply involved in the bikes and livability as John Porcari, but I think he gets it,” she said. “I think he deserves a lot of credit too for the evolving of FHWA, realizing that it is more than just rural highways.”

Also on the way out is David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Advocates had been working hard to convince Strickland of the importance of walking and biking in national transportation policy. Clarke wrote that he “came a long way on bike issues this year.” Strickland attended both U.S. DOT bike safety summits last year. He is being replaced by his deputy, David Friedman, who will be an interim appointment.

All of the new appointments will require Senate approval.

Despite the turnover at high-level positions, Roskowski said she expects to see support for walking, biking, and transit continue to grow at the federal level.

“There’s a lot of good people within those agencies that really get it,” she said. “They’re working really hard to figure this stuff out” — protected bike lanes and other new street treatments — “and institutionalize and provide the recommendations we need from a federal agency.”