Q&A with Joung Lee, Policy Director at AASHTO and Founder of YPT

Tell us about your background and how you came to work in policy at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

At a young age, I was fascinated by cars and roadways – I liked to draw maps and build sand highway interchanges at the beach. While some kids wanted to become president or an astronaut when they grew up, I wanted to work for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). I began interning at the FHWA in college, and then entered its two-year professional development program in transportation planning after graduation. Moving around the country, I saw policy implementation first-hand. In 2007, after about seven years at the FHWA, I received the opportunity to join the AASHTO.

Since I had field-level experience at FHWA and saw how policy influenced the public, I felt ready to step into policy development at the federal level with AASHTO. Initially, I was working on transportation funding and finance issues, which helped me grasp the foundational elements of transportation policy. Then, when I took over as policy director, I gained broader exposure to additional areas of transportation policy – transit, environment, and freight, among others – which has proven to be a fun challenge.

What are the major initiatives you’re working on in your current role at AASHTO?

Right now, the biggest issue in transportation policy for state departments of transportation that AASHTO represents is the potential infrastructure package. The stars are aligning for something big to happen in this sphere. Usually, during campaign seasons, people are worried about their jobs, the economy, and healthcare – they don’t think about infrastructure. But in the most recent election, we heard both major party candidates talk about the infrastructure imperative. Now under the new president and Congress, we’re seeing bipartisan support for infrastructure investment. AASHTO is working with a host of organizations in the industry to advance a smart and efficient infrastructure investment package that delivers benefits to every part of the country.

There’s a lot of conversation about public-private partnerships (P3s) as the centerpiece of this package. House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested pairing every dollar of federal spending with forty dollars of private investment. While there’s a place for a P3 approach in certain areas and projects – often those that are riskier and more complicated – AASHTO sees the need for direct funding from the federal government to make meaningful progress across all regions of the U.S.
What’s an issue in transportation policy that isn’t being discussed enough?

We need to ask why we’re having the transportation funding conversation the way we are. There’s a real disconnect between how people pay into the transportation system and what they get out of it. Living in a market-based economy, we’re accustomed to exchanging money for goods or services – like buying a gallon of milk or paying a utility bill. In transportation, payment and funding is very opaque. When you get a receipt from the gas station, it doesn’t show the breakdown of taxes versus the fuel itself, so drivers aren’t attuned to the amount of fuel tax going towards building infrastructure. If you don’t know what you’re paying, you take that access to transportation infrastructure for granted. On average, it’ll cost someone less than three-hundred dollars a year in gas taxes to have access to the entire roadway network in the U.S. But if you mention a gas tax increase, citizens don’t want to pay for it because there’s no understanding of how much they currently pay. The transportation industry can do a better job of linking the benefits of public investments to the amount people pay.

What’s a trend in transportation that you’re excited about?

I enjoy seeing all of the young people who are entering the transportation sphere. They’re smart, passionate, and interested in creative solutions to meet mobility needs, which holds a bright future for our industry. Every year, I attend TransportationCamp, an “unconference” that takes a bottom-up approach and allows attendees to determine the session topics. A lot of participation comes from the younger folks, and it’s inspiring to see the ideas they’re generating and types of conversations they’re having. Many are interested in the marriage of transportation and technology, which is something else I’m excited about.

What do you predict will be the biggest change in transportation policy and regulation in the next five years?

The topic that’s been on most of our minds – autonomous vehicles (AVs). You hear how our economy is doing well by a lot of indicators, but the one thing that’s still not coming back is the rate of productivity. We saw such regular and significant increases in productivity and GDP in the late 20th century, but why has it become stagnant? Perhaps to get a new cycle of growth started, we need a true “game changer.” I can certainly envision AVs causing that kind of fundamental change in how we all live and work.

At AASHTO, we’re focused on providing the right infrastructure for AVs and other technologies to flourish, while also ensuring safety and efficiency. Right now, regulations surrounding AVs are playing out more at the local government level, but setting state model laws is a growing conversation. The real challenge will be creating a policy and regulatory framework that serves the public benefit but doesn’t constrain the innovations that are taking place. Coming up with a soft touch approach will be critical.

You’re also the founder of Young Professionals in Transportation. Why is an organization like YPT important for the industry?

When starting out in the transportation industry, whether you’re a private sector consultant or in an entry-level public sector position, you often don’t get a chance to meet peers outside of your organization. I wanted to provide an accessible networking opportunity that younger folks could participate in at the beginning of their careers, instead of waiting until they’d climbed the ladder. I received a lot of great support from AASHTO to develop YPT, and today its success depends on people getting involved. It’s entirely volunteer-run from the international level down to the chapter level, so it also serves as a leadership opportunity early on in people’s careers when they may not have many.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone hoping to break into the transportation policy field?

Be known as a technical expert in a specific area, and build your reputation from there. The higher up you go, the more general your roles and responsibilities become, but acquiring technical expertise that serves as your career foundation is a critical first step.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.