Greg Cohen is the President of the American Highway Users Alliance (The Highway Users), and is a Class of 1999 Future Leaders Development Conference (LDC) Eno Fellow. In his position at The Highway Users, Greg serves motorists and highway supporters as their advocate in Washington – pursuing federal policies that improve highway safety and reduce congestion. Prior to joining The Highway Users in July 2002, Greg served as a professional staff member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee in which he was responsible for oversight of the Federal Highway Administration’s implementation of the 1998 highway bill, TEA 21. He also worked on legislation to eliminate highway funding cuts and streamline environmental reviews, and coordinated oversight hearings that laid the policy groundwork for the 2005 highway bill, “SAFETEA-LU”. Greg is also a licensed Professional Engineer.
What made you decide to pursue engineering in school?
I was always interested in maps, roads, and mobility as a kid. Even at a young age, I knew where all of the buses went and rode my bike all over the Washington, DC metro area. I drove 30,000 miles a year as a teenager. I loved roads and the freedom they give us. The ability to go wherever and whenever you want to made me interested in the opportunities provided by high-quality transportation. The engineering field was appealing to me because it’s basically about solving problems. My father is also an engineer, so that was a part of why I leaned in that direction too.
You were a project engineer for five years with the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). What was this experience like?
It was a very rewarding start. I worked for the State Highway Administration (SHA) within MDOT. I did preliminary engineering and planning, which was a great way to engage with the community and stakeholders. The job got me a little further away from pure engineering and more into balancing the needs of motorists with the needs of the community. It was a great place to be a young graduate engineer, because they not only allowed me, but also encouraged me, to move out of my usual office and do different things like ITS planning, construction inspection, and travel demand forecasting. As a part of that, I was able to do a rotation as the legislative liaison to the Maryland General Assembly. I worked with the Administrator and all of the top directors while I was still in my mid-twenties, and that spurred my interest in leadership and policy.
How did your position as a professional staff member of House T&I come about?
I was going to graduate school at the same time I was working at the State Highway Administration. One of my colleagues, Robert Ritter, had been an Eno Fellow, and told me that I would love it, and that I should ask my professor to nominate me. Fortunately I was selected. I enjoyed LDC tremendously. We were encouraged to ask questions and to challenge the speakers. After the program, then President and CEO of Eno, Damien Kulash, was asked by a colleague if he knew anyone that would be good for an opening in the House T&I Committee, and he recommended me. That’s how I ended up working on the Hill.
What was the best part of your experience as a professional staff member of the House T&I Committee?
One of the reasons I was hired was because I had experience going through a slow, difficult, bureaucratic study process to get road projects approved by the feds. At the time, streamlining this process was a hot topic on the Hill. We needed to find ways to make reviews quicker without sacrificing environmental protection, and to avoid wasting so much money in these endless studies. I worked with stakeholders to identify process reforms and, ultimately that led to a bill that became a part of SAFETEA-LU. It was a joy to be in a place where I could help to solve the problems I experienced back at SHA.
What was most challenging part of working on Capitol Hill?
When I was at the State Highway Administration, it would take a long time to get projects done. On the Hill, you work on a lot of things that never even see the light of day. Not every proposal or idea actually makes it into a bill. You might write a speech for a legislator who doesn’t end up making it to the event. Working on things that never get implemented is the biggest challenge, and it’s also a large part of life as a Congressional staffer. The majority of legislation does not get passed, and it’s a slow and difficult process to even get to the point where your bill is introduced. This problem is even more evident today than it was when I was there 15 years ago.
You’ve been with The Highway Users since 2002. What’s made you stay for over a decade now?
I was fortunate that within only a couple of years of being at The Highway Users I became the boss. I was pretty young – 33 at the time. Our board is wonderful, and provides me with a lot of freedom to pursue our policies. I work with some very talented people, both on my staff, within our membership, over at USDOT, and on the Hill. The transportation community is full of genuinely good and kind people who know and like each other. All of the jobs I’ve had in my field have been fulfilling in the sense that I’ve been working on issues that truly benefit the public, whether they live in rural or urban areas; whether they are poor or rich. In my job now, I feel like I’m looking out for all kinds of people who just want to get where they are going safely and efficiently. I enjoy leading an organization whose mission is to serve the motoring public. It’s very rewarding.
What do you think it will take to “Put the Trust Back” into a strong and well-funded Highway Trust Fund?
We made some progress with MAP-21. We started to pull away from the idea that the program was going to be everything to every lobbyist in town, and we’ve set some priorities by cutting some smaller programs that were basically serving narrow special interests. We have begun the process of putting in some good performance measures to show accountability to tax payers. Now it’s time for Congress to raise the money to fund a national system. My view is that some form of a user-based approach like the gas tax remains the most logical, transparent, and efficient way to fund roads.
How did LDC and being an Eno Fellow affect your career path? What was your biggest takeaway?
Eno was directly responsible for an entire change in my career path. I went from engineering specific projects to developing solutions to national transportation problems. The intensity of the program and the quality of the individuals I got to meet were of tremendous value to me. I came away knowing that I wanted to work in policy, and that’s where I’ve stayed.
What advice do you have for the LDC Class of 2015 who will start their program in less than a month?
Be respectful, but challenge the people you meet with thoughtful questions. And, don’t be afraid to be pro-highway!