FOR POLLY TROTTENBERG MPP 1992, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, the passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill in November was an extraordinary and hard-fought victory. Its implementation, she argues, can profoundly affect the country. It will also most likely help define a career—built over three decades at the city, state, and federal levels—devoted to improving how America moves.


Q: We are speaking in early November, as the infrastructure bill is about to be signed into law. What is your reaction?

This is something you wait your whole career to have happen. In transportation, this is just extraordinary; it’s transformative. I’m excited about the things we’re going to be able to accomplish—it’s pretty wonderful. This was a hard legislative victory, and I worked on Capitol Hill long enough to know you rarely see victories like this.


Q: Beyond the resources needed to improve aging infrastructure—roads and bridges—how will this be transformative?

We are now going to have about $200 billion to give out in competitive programs. That is profound for shaping policy outcomes. How can we make our transportation system more equitable? A system that respects local communities, that undoes some of the damage of the interstates; a system that provides affordable, reliable transportation. A system that provides job opportunities and contracting opportunities for underserved communities. Then there’s environmental sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There’s investment in the supply chain and in the reinvigoration of our manufacturing base. This legislation really gets us much bigger investments in rail—and not just Amtrak but other rail projects around the country. It is going to get us bigger into dealing with resiliency in our infrastructure. It is going to really get us bigger into roadway safety at the local level. So the list is long.

aerial view of street

“That better bus service, that bike lane, that bridge we fix so that you don’t have to detour for 20 miles. They may not be national in scale, but for the communities that are affected by those projects, their impact is large.”

Polly Trottenberg

Q: What will be the most visible change for most Americans?

It sort of depends on what lens you’re looking through. Some big things clearly have national implications: work we might do at the Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach; work we do on rail issues, both passenger and freight rail around Chicago, which is one of the major hubs for the country; building out an electric-vehicle charging network. But I want to be careful. I was a local transportation official for the past seven years, as commissioner for transportation in New York City. Those big things are great, but what’s so wonderful about transportation is also the things that are going to affect everyday people’s lives in communities large and small around the country. That better bus service, that bike lane, that bridge we fix so that you don’t have to detour for 20 miles. They may not be national in scale, but for the communities that are affected by those projects, their impact is large.


Q: How has the transportation field evolved during your career?

It was a field that was heavily engineering-focused and, in the urban context in particular, focused on vehicular movement above all else. And for a long time it was also very male-dominated and with not a lot of people of color in the top roles. It has evolved into a field that is much more interdisciplinary—connected to environmental questions, to questions of housing and land use. It continues to be more interested in working with stakeholder groups and having a public dialogue. That has opened the field up to people with a more diverse set of skills. 


Q: What does this challenge mean to you personally?

The president has signed one of the most far-reaching, robust, and transformative transportation bills in American history. If we implement it successfully, it will do great things for the country. And for me, to help make sure that all the programs and projects and policy priorities are implemented in a way that achieves the best results for the country—well, that would be a mighty big accomplishment.

Banner image: Polly Trottenberg speaking at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/AP Imagess

Inline image: San Francisco’s Market Street by Scott Szarapka

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