One of the most important aspects of SAFETEA was the creation of a new core Safety program called the Highway Safety Improvement Program or HSIP (READ: H-sip). Frequently, when discussing transportation issues, much of the focus is on problems with funding, congestion, and the physical state of our infrastructure, but sufficient attention must be paid to ensuring our nation’s roads are as safe as possible. Injuries and fatalities on our nation’s roads place enormous economic and non-economic costs on our society. We can do better. As we work to increase the performance of our transportation network, we must also continue to make safety our priority.
Following enactment of SAFETEA, I asked GAO to conduct reviews of many aspects of the highway program. HSIP was one of the areas they have been looking into for me. The HSIP work will not be published until September, but they will be able to give us their main findings today. The most important part of HSIP is the strategic highway safety plan, where states create a data driven plan to address their most pressing safety problems. Anything on this plan is eligible for federal HSIP funding. I really like this approach. Let the states determine their greatest needs and determine how funds can be best spent.
These strategic plans are one of the primary areas I asked GAO to focus their efforts on to ensure the program was operating as we hoped and planned. Early reports are fairly positive, but as always, there is room for improvements, especially on the data front. I hope all of today’s witnesses can give us their thoughts on this issue.
Recently I was made aware of a growing concern by State Departments of Transportation regarding the ability to use proprietary products in Federal-Aid projects. I am continually amazed at how quickly technology changes and how what may have been “state of the art” is quickly overshadowed by new and innovative products. We want our States to have the ability to use the product best suited for the job, but at the same time we need to make sure that scarce taxpayer dollars are used wisely. Thus, the Federal Highway Administration has regulations requiring open and competitive bidding for vendors doing work or providing materials for Federal Aid projects. I support that process, but would like to hear from our witnesses whether or not the existing regulations need to be examined to make sure that they are not inhibiting states from choosing the right product for the job.
One of our witnesses will discuss performance measures. Currently, the highway program provides states over $40 billion a year. This money comes with far too many bureaucratic strings attached. That said, an important area is currently ignored: What are we getting for our money after the project is constructed? How states choose to spend limited state and federal resources obviously has an enormous impact on the performance of the system. Performance measures can focus on individual aspects of the system such as congestion, the physical condition of roads or bridges, or safety. I am interested to see if HSIP is an area where performance measures can play a role. The use of performance measures is complicated–otherwise they would already be more widely used.
This hearing is being held as we prepare to write the next highway bill, so I’m looking forward to hearing concrete suggestions from our witnesses on how to improve the current HSIP program. This is a critical program and I know that everybody wants to make the improvements necessary to help make our nation’s roads safer.