Senate Panel Looks at Build America Bureau and USDOT Rural Initiative

Senate Panel Looks at Build America Bureau and USDOT Rural Initiative

January 31, 2020  | Alice Grossman

The Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety echoed the current administration’s concentration on rural America by holding a hearing on January 28 on Building Infrastructure in America: Overview of the Build America Bureau and the U.S. Department of Transportation Rural Transportation Initiatives. The hearing focused on initiatives that support infrastructure investment in rural areas including the TIFIA Rural Projects Initiative (RPI), RRIF Express, and the new Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) initiative. The testimonies and questions followed more along the lines of how to best use these programs to support rural communities rather than on how the federal funds are or should be spent.

Witnesses included:

Committee members and witnesses drew on USDOT traffic fatality statistics and the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card to emphasize the need for infrastructure maintenance and building. While TIFIA RIP and RRIF Express are established Build America Bureau programs, Secretary Chao announced ROUTES in October, 2019. Much of the hearing focused on the activities stemming from the new initiative, and witnesses from USDOT impressed upon the potential benefits to develop from conversations initiated through technical assistance from The Bureau for rural communities. Discussions of financing with TIFIA RPI and RRIF mainly focused on the national importance of ports and shortline railroads to support the US economy and play a role in disaster relief.

USDOT witnesses framed the need for more support in rural America in the context of safety concerns from fatal crashes in rural areas, and the need to support more projects there. They suggested that urban areas are “better equipped” to apply for Federal funds, and noted that communities that have a history with working with USDOT had a higher success rate in receiving funds than agencies applying for the first time.  They hope that outreach through ROUTES can help communities develop a better understanding and capacity for how to access Federal dollars and what to expect from the application and implementation processes.

One of the main sources of confusion among potential recipients may stem from the early stage of applying for USDOT funds in merely discerning eligibility for various funding and financing programs. There are currently nine USDOT programs that distinguish between eligibility for urban and rural communities, and there are nearly as many definitions of rural community. Diving into the reasons behind the varied definitions could help identify when the various definitions are appropriate and advantageous to supporting national goals, and where there might be opportunities eliminate unnecessary variation or at least provide information and technical assistance that is easier to access and understand.

When asked about expanding eligibility for the Federal loan programs under discussion, USDOT witnesses responded confidently that their report on allowing airports to request TIFIA funds will be a thorough and useful foundation, albeit a couple years tardy. Members and witnesses did agree on the potential need to raise the cap on available loans to allow for larger projects, at ports or otherwise.

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