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PA Secretary of Transportation

We welcome Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian to Business as Usual. She assumed the role of secretary amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. This challenging time necessitated quick, decisive action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to best protect citizens, employees, and business partners.

As secretary, she oversees programs and policies affecting highways, urban and rural public transportation, airports, railroads, ports and waterways. Secretary Gramian manages PennDOT's annual budget of $9.5 billion, which is invested in all of Pennsylvania's approximately 120,000 miles of state and local highways and 32,000 state and local bridges.

During our time with Secretary Gramian, we will explore how technology and innovation help bring the Department of Transportation achieve its goal of developing safer and more efficient infrastructure in the Commonwealth. We’ll also discuss how critical our roads, airports and mass transit systems are to supporting a vibrant innovation economy in the Commonwealth. 



Good afternoon, everyone. And this is a Happy Thursday in the first week of June. I'm Audrey Rousseau, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. And we're doing business as usual today. And I will formally introduce our guests in just one moment. I'm thrilled that she has joined us today. So sit back and ask questions. And maybe we'll have time to have some interactive discussions. But before we do, I want to give a shout out deep appreciation to Huntington bank, for them being our partners through thick and thin over these last 16 months and more in creating business as usual, and having conversations around all things that matter to all of us and being here for our technology ecosystem, and making sure that we're connecting all the people who are doing amazing things, and today is no exception. Jonathan Kersting is with us. As always, he's vice president of all things media and marketing for the Technology Council, and he will be monitoring the chat, he and we have muted you just out of consideration so that we don't hear some things in the background. But that doesn't mean that we won't have time to you know, take questions and have a conversation with the secretary. So thank you all for being here. And really thrilling to be able to introduce our secretary Yasmin Grumman. And she is doing some really cool things and serves in a job that that really could not be more timely. Okay, she is the secretary. And we're going to talk about transportation. We're going to talk about all things transportation wherever time pack in as much as possible. And before we get into Pandora, and the many ways that Pandora is leveraging innovation, let's take a few minutes to not only welcome you, but also to find out a little bit about your professional journey. So you know, tell us just a little bit about yourself, how you got to grow or anything that you think would be great for us to know. Okay,

great. Good afternoon, Audrey. Good afternoon to everyone on this virtual session. I'm glad to be with you today. I don't know how far you want me to go back. But I'm going to give you a little bit about my early days as a young girl, I had a dream to be an engineer one day and I attended an all girls high school back in the country of Iran. And I was within a stem academic path. I was surrounded with students and teachers who challenged and encouraged me to excel in maths and sciences. And defining moment for me was when I attended Michigan engineering school, and I earned my bachelor's on my master's degree in civil engineering. I was the first female member of my extended family who studied engineering and later followed by several younger cousins, female cousins, who also pursued similar path. My first job out of college, was back in the early 80s was with an engineering firm in New Jersey, where I was the first female bridge engineer on the staff and was responsible for conducting bridge inspection and analysis. I began as a design engineer, and then progress to project management, business leadership positions, etc. Prior to joining Pandora, I held various leadership positions as a senior vice president of a national firm, over 4500 employees and then later on as a senior vice president of the Mid Atlantic, regional. I was in charge of the Mid Atlantic region for a global firm with over 40,000 employees, and I was responsible for expanding their operations growing the revenue and growing the top line on the bottom line. I was confirmed as a secretary of panda by the Senate in May of last year 2020 in 2020. I oversee pandas 10 billion budget and 11,000 employees as well as all the policies affecting highways, public transportation, airports, railroads, ports, waterways, and so on. And I assumed the role during the COVID-19 damage which required quick decisive action with the goal of mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 and protecting citizens and our employees and our partners.

Wow, you have kicked off A lot of ceilings, you have kicked a lot of ceiling. So that is really impressive. And I'm thrilled that we took the time to understand that. So you really, you know, yes, in the midst of COVID, I can't even imagine hopefully, we'll, we'll talk a little bit about that, but we're lucky to have you. So I really appreciate this is a job that you have to want to have. And there's certainly a lot of your experience that you bring to bear which is thrilling to hear your private sector experience and actually being a practitioner, so lovely, thank you so much. So many people think of roads and highways, and, you know, but you actually oversee policies, public transit, and you mentioned airports, you mentioned railroads, ports and our waterways. So can you give us it like a quick overview, again, not trying to simplify anything, but it's just the breadth of it all, you know, the responsibilities that Penn God has?

Yes, I'd be happy to. pendous responsibility extends far beyond roads and bridges. As you mentioned, they we oversee programs and policies affecting highways, urban and rural public transportation, airports, railroads, ports, waterways, public transportation, bicycling, walking, aviation, rail, freight and ports is also under pandals, jurisdiction and purview. pendants, we in our investment includes on the public transportation 34 fixed routes, which supports more than 420 million plus trips, the states has got 65 operating railroads, and more than 5600 miles of tracks. We also have 125 licensed public airports, and three ports. So these are some of the assets that we are responsible for. But obviously, highways and bridges is the biggest part of our assets, which includes 40,000 miles of highways on roughly over 25,000 bridges that the state owns and is responsible for. And in addition to that we have over 80,000 miles of local roads and over 6500 local bridges that we support financially and also our partners. Obviously, they're our biggest assets on highways and bridges and three quarters of our annual budget is invested in the highways, the local and state highways and bridges. But also I want to emphasize that maintenance is a big part of our business. We have over 7000 employees working in the maintenance section of Pandora I under Highway Administration out of the 11,000 plus employees that we have. And their job is you're seeing them all the time. It's they do all the maintenance work restoration and expansion and fixing the potholes and seal codes and everything else that goes on in addition to plowing snows in the winter time and just making sure all you know highways and roadways and bridges are all safe for for the travelers. The other thing I wanted to mention is the way our organization is set up. We have the central office and then we have 11 engineering districts. And within each district, we have facilities in every counties of the state. So we have 67 counties, facilities, and they oversee all the maintenance work. In addition to all everything I mentioned on the district side and the central office, we also have their drivers drivers vehicle services that oversees nearly 12 million vehicle registrations and over 10 million driver's licenses and ID cards and all the safety and emission inspection programs and the testing and everything else.

Well, I'm exhausted just hearing that. But I can tell you we do our fair share by the number of bridges that we have in in Pittsburgh to add add to your responsibilities, right.

Yeah, well, I What can I say? I am fascinated with the bridges you have in Pittsburgh. I used to come to the international bridge conference when I was a bridge engineer. Every year I never missed it when I was practicing as a bridge engineer, and I miss not being there. And I love all those bridges. I might My heart is still with the bridges. I have to say that.

That's great. It's amazing, isn't it? So I know there are other parts of the state that say Pittsburgh shouldn't have that much have that many bridges to support, but we love it as well. So let's let's um, talk about pin dots rules. In terms of evaluating new technologies and innovation, but you know, you also have your own role in terms of encouraging innovation and promoting economic development, you have a key, your key player in terms of you know, how well we do, and how we're seen by the world in the space.

Yeah, that's extremely important to us. And, you know, we're continuously looking for opportunities to use technology to enhance safety, mobility, accessibility, sustainability, and basically creating a more equitable transportation network that we currently have. I mean, we constantly ask ourselves that question, what can we do better? are we providing access and mobility for all people of Pennsylvania, and what Where are the areas where we can make improvements. And definitely technology is a big part of it. As an example, I did the use of low speed, automated shuttles. We are using that to address peak demands on or off hours operation, it could also be helpful to provide a new mobility solution to the disadvantaged communities. And we're looking into that. And we know there is a case in Columbus, Ohio, and we're talking to them and we are trying to emulate that in Pennsylvania as well. PDD, which is the personal delivery device, which the law was passed is another example. There are autonomous delivery devices that operate on the shoulder of the roadways and within pedestrian areas, such as sidewalk and crosswalk. And they've they're really going to be very helpful supplementing and already strained supply chain that we're faced today with e commerce. And for additional delivery, contactless delivery. Obviously, we wanted to make sure that there are proper guidance and guidelines in place for the safe operations of these devices. Because as I mentioned, you know, these devices are being operated in the same areas with the pedestrian traffic. The other example is the truck platooning, which is, which is the the new demonstration project that happened last year towards the end of the year with other smart bill states, Michigan and Ohio. And they transported to a food bank. And that's a great story. With a firm out of Pittsburgh, local meishan. I'm sure you've heard about it. And we really need to be experts, and focus on the challenges that we're faced today in our system and make sure that we are actually leveraging technology to address some of those challenges. And obviously, there is the area of highly automated vehicles, and or HIV. We set up the advisory committee back in 2018. The committee includes folks from stakeholders from public and private key stakeholders, were working towards policies, best practices of safe integration of connected and automated vehicles. On the Pennsylvania roadways, obviously, it's been very challenging. Now we're talking to our peers to see you know, where they've made progress. We are always exchanging information with with the peers, and we are keenly committed to this evolving. Technology is very important to us. And in 2020, I'm pleased to report that the advisory committee identified four areas that we should be focusing on the public stakeholder outreach, we wanted to make sure that people are aware of this technology, obviously, this is extremely important. awareness and education is a key part of this. technology being successful. workforce development is also very important, and what kind of programs we wanted to put in place to make sure that we're successful with the workforce and pivoting the workforce into this new technology. Obviously, there are things that we have to do on our end with the vehicle codes and make some revisions to accommodate for this technology, and also looking into expanding this technology, not just on the highways, but multimodal, you know with the transit system, as we previously talked about.

And so, yeah, that's wonderful. And and I think that's important in terms of the priorities and the advisory committee work. What do you think what is some of your advice for us in the private sector in terms of workforce, because it's not all the responsibility of government to do this. So that's the seen some good ideas, some good things that you think you'd like to share with us?

Well, we actually are in the process of, you know, developing some new ideas and honestly gathering information on the workforce development. That's the biggest challenge, right? It's interesting when trucking industry, for example, when you talk to them, there is a shortage of drivers, right, there is a huge shortage of drivers. So this is one area where we can actually take advantage of highly automated automated vehicles and automated technology. Right. But obviously, we wanted to make sure that the infrastructure is in place that would create a safe system for for, you know, for the truckers or the platooning. And help them with that. Right. So there is a lot of testing that should be done. The workforce, it we're relying a lot, as you mentioned, on the private side, as well as on the academia side, you know, it's not like we're working in vacuum Panda, because we are, you know, ultimately, at the end of the day, the workforce is being being provided by the folks from the private side. No, that's

great. So can you talk about how Ben got in bracing, so this whole thing that we started to talk about the connected the connectedness, the smart infrastructure to help reduce traffic related injuries and improve traffic flow and congestion.

So like anything else, Audrey, you start with a strategic plan right here, when you are entering something new, you need to have a plan. And the first thing you do is make an assessment of where your system is. So we really need to we need, we needed to have a clear understanding of, you know, the existing system, right. So we developed a strategic plan. And part of the strategic plan includes the steps that pendo should take to prepare for these technologies, we define a comprehensive set of focus and reasonable, and also deployable applications, you know, it's taking one step at a time those short wins with this new program is extremely important to gain the confidence of the public. Obviously, anytime you introduce a new technology, you got to pace yourself, right? We want it to show the end result, but it's not going to happen. If the public doesn't buy into it, they have to feel comfortable about it. And we wanted to make sure we take all those baby steps to with our deployment plan that you know, get the public comfortable with it, we also have to understand what kind of investment we need to make, right, this is a new technology, and evaluating our system is a big part of it. And also, you know, all those areas where we have gaps, we have to identify like, what's the situation in the rural versus urban and, you know, Pennsylvania is such a diverse city, you can't really develop a plan that would apply to all areas. What's happening in the urban corridors is different from the cities is different from the rural areas. So this strategic plan that we develop is really a living document. And as a matter of fact, we're going to update this document this year, and put new, you know, the changes and what we've learned from the industry into this strategic plan. And what we're also trying to do, as I mentioned before, is the academic, the academia involvement with what we are trying to do, they're they they're great. There's also great potential in collaboration with that. And we need your help, we need their insights. For example, we're working with CMU to develop our connected automated vehicles 2040 vision, which explore the impact of connected and autonomous vehicles in several areas from real time data usage and workforce training needs, as I mentioned, to drivers licensing and freight flow as they relate to Penner. Penner is also working with CMU and Penn State to assess the safe integration and automated vehicles in the work zone. That's a very big concern of us. We wanted to make sure that these vehicles and this technology is can also understand we are providing the infrastructure in the works on area and that's very critical to us. And all the foundational changes that we have to make, you know with our own infrastructure in for example, at the signalized intersection. How do we handle that? Do we want it to keep it at individual signals or do we want it to centralize it operator is a backhaul communication controller, you know at the central communication level that we can actually manage the communication or should be realized intersection by intersection to respond to this automated technology. So there is a lot of things that we're actually evaluating and working with the academia to figure it out.

Well, I like I mean, I think the most amazing things happen with the partnership public, private, and academic. And that's where it's, it's there's tension, but it's good tension, because good things, you help the entrepreneurs sort of Breathe deep a little bit. The entrepreneurs push hard. And the academics work hard on their research. So a perfect partnership. I appreciate you describing that. So you know, we talk about new technologies. Let's let's sort of jump to this. Let's talk about an old technology. Okay, let's talk about gas. How much of Pentagon's budget is derived by some sort of gas tax. Governor Wolf's committed to the you know, start the process of passing, you know, phasing out this tax. Can you talk to us about why this is necessary and how the strategy is being developed? I know that there's a transportation revenues options commission.

Yep. Yep. So state and federal gas taxes, they make up 78% of pandals, total highway and bridge funding. That's more than any of our neighboring states. You know, actually, we're developing a report right now, because this, this question always comes up, that we are the second highest, most expensive gas tax in terms of our gas tax state in the country, and why it's not sufficient. First of all, as I mentioned, we have a very complex and huge asset, that the size of the magnitude of the highways and the bridges that we have, we're responsible for, is huge, as an as an agency, and we, you know, our source of revenue is really predominantly gas, that 78% is a big percentage of our revenue and gas, that it's has not been a reliable source of revenue. I mean, it's reliable to certain extent, but it's not sustainable. It's not sustainable for a number of different reasons. First of all, last year, when COVID-19, we lost about 500 million, because the traffic numbers went down. You know, at some point, we have 45% of the traffic that we typically do on a normal year. And this is the revenue that's gone. And fortunately, the traffic volumes are bad. And but you know, as I said, the revenue that we lost last year is gone. The other thing is, you know, the cars are becoming more efficient. And you get more mileage of full gas tax, which is great. I'm very happy about that. The other thing that's happening is the investment in electrical vehicle technology, right? $225 billion in developing new Evie technologies out again, we're very supportive of it, we are very happy about it. When GM talks about going all electric by 2035. That's great. But it also tells us You better start thinking about your funding, because 78% of your assets are being managed by this source of funding, which is diminishing, and it's going to it's only going to get worse. And you know, at the federal level, honestly, we haven't seen much of an increase in the revenue that we've been getting nothing substantial since 1993, which was the last time the federal government did something substantial in terms of the gas tax at the federal level. So we're hoping for a very hopeful through the jobs plan to the new transportation Highway Transportation Trust Fund, to see some additional revenue coming into transportation to all states because it's much needed. But we also need to start thinking about a sustainable source of revenue. As I said, the gas taxes is not going to be sustainable. It's not going to be reliable. So the other thing I have to mention is, we got to be ready. Our infrastructure has to be ready for the transportation of the future. Right, which is when we were talking about all his investments in electrical vehicle technologies. How can we support this technology and that's one of my major concerns and push right now is we need to have a plan of deploying this charging stations. So people are comfortable to migrate into this new technology. I know some people have done it. They're comfortable with it. But we wanted to make sure that people have a choice and they're comfortable that as a state agency, we're providing them with the infrastructure. They need. So, you know, as I said, we're supporting our 21st century needs for transportation with a 20th century source of funding. So what do we need to do, and I'm very happy that the governor recognize that gas tax is not a sustainable source. And he put together this commission, this commission. We call it a transportation revenue option commission. It's, which was established in March of 2021. Includes folks from the private side from the public side, and were tasked with coming up with solutions to address the transportation funding to reduce our reliability on gas tax, first of all, for highway bridge, but also to identify additional sources of funding for all modes of transportation, not just highways and bridges, but multi modal everything.

Well, I had two questions I really wanted to pack in and one obviously, is mass mass transit, right, because mass transit matters, right? It just, it absolutely matters. And we're, you know, we're staring potentially at a cliff right now in terms of transit funding. So can you talk about that cliff, and maybe some options. And then the last thing to wrap it up? So you can think about this is, you know, you're talking to a whole bunch of business people and entrepreneurs and they will they're always chomping at the bit to have solutions for you and or something breakthrough? Is there any other anything that comes to the top of your mind? As you think of Gee, I wish we could have X y&z so two questions mass transit, and then innovation.

Okay, Audrey, let me start by mass transit. As I mentioned, before, we have, we're providing 420 million trips for people of Pennsylvania to our mass transit system. It's extremely important. Some people don't about 60% of those people who use our mass transit, they don't have other means of transportation, and they rely on mass transit. And if you recall, ak 44 of 2007 relied on Pennsylvania Turnpike and its customers to pay for transportation benefits across Pennsylvania initially was transit and portion of our highway program. And then it was reduced back in act on their act 89. As of 2013, it was solely the 450 million that they provided is solely going to mass transit and multi modal, it will expire in 2022. And it will actually get reduced to $50 million a year. And the plan is at 450 million to be provided from the state vehicle tax moving forward beyond 2022. So we recognize that this would impact the general fund, because currently the vehicle sales tax is part of the general fund. Right? So how are they going to make sure that this additional 450 million is actually being secured for the transit system. That's one concern of us. Obviously, it's being spoken for, for other uses, when it's part of the general fund. So that's one concern of us. And I have to say, without a sustainable alternative funding for mass transit, without having this 450 million, we cannot meet the needs of the state of good repair. We cannot meet the reliable transit fleet. We cannot expand services or any other new initiatives that the transit agencies are looking into. So we are very engaged with our lawmakers and we are talking about it. And it's part of the discussions that we are having as the within our T ROC committee. So this is something more to come on that I hope we can all come up with a solution. And we can ensure that you know, we can carry on with the mass transit, as you mentioned. Now, the second part of your question, you said what can this group help? And do tell? What do you wish? Yeah,

what are some of the things that are there any solutions that are needed? You know, raw materials, etc?

Yeah, I mean, this is this is a great question, and we can talk about it forever we can do, I would love to have a brainstorming session. So Audrey, as I said, at the very beginning, I came from the private side. And when you're on the private side, you're always challenged to come up with solutions for your clients, you're pushed to Hey, come up with new ideas, new innovation, making it faster, making it safer, making it quality making it cheaper for your clients, right. And we're constantly looking for that. And I tried to bring some of those ideas actually, when I came to Panda, this alternative funding that we introduced the p3, Pennsylvania p3 Bridge Program. is one of them. Obviously, as we move on the technology side, as I mentioned, I'm very concerned that we provide the right kind of infrastructure on the electrical vehicle technologies we provide, I would love to see a pilot program in the state of Pennsylvania with mileage based users. I know some of the other states are doing it. We're talking to our peers in Oregon and Utah to see what they're doing, how they rolled out their product, their pilot program, we're trying to implement the same thing in Pennsylvania, just wanted to make sure that we are ready for the technology, I feel like we're constantly catching up. Even on the AV side, we're doing a lot. We're one of the leaders as a state, but the industry is ahead of us. And I'm very concerned about making sure that really the infrastructure is in place to respond to the industry to have ongoing discussions with industry, we're very open to solute solutions, suggestions to make sure we create a safer, more equitable, accessible mobility for all people offensive and Yeah,

well, listen, we could have talked about this for another hour. Okay. And I tried to pack in every question, I, before we wrap up, I do want to give a huge shout out and appreciation to Cheryl moon sirianni. And she's our local pen dot office for just constantly being amazing and so accessible. So kudos to you and your team. But there's a lot for us to cover in here, Secretary. So I mean, we've just we've just cracked a little window into the world, of who you are what you bring to the table, which is just incredible. Because you know, your perspective and being in the private sector, you understand the tension, and you understand the tension, and you understand how fast the world is moving, you moved in with COVID. And the world changed, right? I mean, I I want to have a whole conversation with you about that in and of itself in terms of what happened in COVID. Because that had to be just incredible. Because on the tech side, the world change plans that were in place for three years occurred in six weeks, right transformations occurred overnight, where people didn't think they could do what they are doing now. And the world will never really be the same. And for mostly, for good reasons, not completely. So what I'd like to do is take you up on what you said, like, you know, let's collaborate, let's figure out some ways to brainstorm and we'd like to do that in a meaningful way. You're, you're busy, you have a massive team. And you've got lots of things to overcome over this, particularly over these next six to seven months. So if I can just say that, but I'd love to be able to follow up with you or your team and the right people. Because as you know, we're not just a city of amazing bridges. But we're also a city of deep, deep innovation. And all the areas that you are, you know, leading are core to who we are and how we move into the next decade. So if that's okay,

with you? Absolutely. Audrey, I have to say, you know, during the past year, during the COVID, we learned that, first of all, we have to partner with everyone. It's like as an agency, we don't have all the answers, we need to partner with the private side for sure. We need to partner with the legislators, we need to partner with the administration, we need to partner with the academia, we need to partner with the Federal Highway and our federal partners. And once we do that, once we bring down all the barriers, and we work together and have an open mind, for the good of the business. And to make improvements, I think we can just take down all the barriers, and we have it we did it last year, and we can continue doing it. So I truly believe in partnership. I would love to have another forum with you and your members and get challenged. Be honest with you. That's That's our job to be challenged with everything we do. Thank you so much for for the opportunity today. I really appreciate it.

Thank you so much, Secretary. Thank you everyone. That was just fabulous, what a treat. Tomorrow we have the defense innovation unit from the Department of Defense. And I know there is a URL for that. So if you're going to join us, you might want to go out and see all that they're doing. And that's going to wrap up Secretary frost. We've been doing over 300 daily updates since the onset of COVID. And tomorrow, we're going to land the jet. And we're going to move into the next chapter of how we keep people connected. So I really appreciate you being here with us. Thank you, everyone and the rest of you join us tomorrow at 12 noon. Thank you so wonderful Great, great to hear from you. Thank you. Thank you very much.

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