Senate Committee Hearing on Rebuilding America’s Transportation Infrastructure

Senate Committee Hearing on Rebuilding America’s Transportation Infrastructure

March 26, 2021  | Hayley Burton

On March 24, 2021, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation met for a hearing entitled, “Driving the Road to Recovery: Rebuilding America’s Transportation Infrastructure.”

The hearing began with opening statements from Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who focused her remarks on infrastructure’s relationship with the economy. Cantwell remarked that the United States currently invests 0.7% of its GDP in transportation infrastructure, compared to up to eight times that of other countries. She argued that the United States needs to invest more in order to stay competitive. She added that inefficiencies in freight due to failing infrastructure comes with an expensive price tag, including lost jobs and businesses.

Cantwell cited three major objectives to strengthen infrastructure:

  1. Congress must provide funds to invest in mega projects that benefit the national and regional economies.
  2. Ease the congestion on our roadways, at rail crossings, and at ports. Work with local and regional partners to address these issues.
  3. Do more (and invest more) to help at grade crossings causing rail congestion, costing safety and efficiency. And, do more to address port congestion.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking chair member of the committee, focused on the upcoming expiration of the FAST Act this September, and the need for longterm and funded (re)authorization for infrastructure and transportation programs. Wicker praised the committee’s influence on programs such as the Office of the Secretary’s BUILD Grants. and the Build America Bureau—noting his priority to make sure rural communities have access to these opportunities.

Witness Testimonies

The committee heard from four witnesses offering local, regional, and national perspectives. John D. Porcari, Managing Partner of 3P Enterprises (written testimony here), spoke of the need for infrastructure investments through the lens of climate change and equity. He called for electrification of the transportation across “land, sea, and air,” building out passenger rail service across the country, and a surface transportation pogram that adopts a system approach and funds projects of national significance federally rather than requiring states to carry the burden. He also called for the NEPA process to incorporate climate change and environmental equity measurements. He insisted local hiring and training components need to be an integral component of the project procurement process, a theme repeated throughout the hearing.

Douglas Hooker, the Executive Director for the Atlanta Regional Commission (written testimony here), highlighted the potential for local and federal partnership, with four main recommendations. First, Congress should continue to support the role of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in facilitating a regional transportation dialogue. Second, Congress must focus additional resources on interstate goods movement vital to the national economy. Third, ensure that FAST Act reauthorization considers the relationship between quality of life and transportation, such as expensive housing costs that drive people to move further outside the city and endure long commutes. And fourth, leverage the capacity of MPOs to convene broad stakeholder events to implement a large connected vehicle (CV) program to improve safety and efficiency.

Toby Barker, mayor of Hattiesburg, MS (written testimony here), spoke to managing infrastructure investment from the local perspective. Barker called surface transportation grants a “lifeline for communities” and urged Congress to reauthorize the existing programs. He advised for increased investment, requirements for local governments to contribute and have “skin in the game,” technical support for planning and accessing grant programs, and to help cities fund transportation systems for all users. Finally, he asked Congress to not change the minimum population requirement for a metropolitan statistically significant area (MSA) and if it is changed, for Congress to not tie grant eligibility to the definition. Several senators agreed throughout the hearing that changing the definition of an MSA is the wrong move.

Finally, the committee heard from Mark McAndrews, Director at the Port of Pascagoula (written testimony here). McAndrews called for increased investment in multimodal transportation systems, and especially port infrastructure. Specifically, as part of a surface transportation reauthorization, McAndrews recommended:

  1. Increase funding for the Port Infrastructure Development Program, and Port and Intermodal Improvement Program
  2. Increase funding for the FAST Act’s INFRA and freight formula programs,
  3. Remove multimodal funding caps on the INFRA and freight formula programs.

Questions and Answers

Wicker followed up on Barker’s comment for localities to continue to have “skin in the game” when it came to funding infrastructure improvements. Wicker himself introduced the LOCAL Infrastructure Act in 2020 to provide additional funding through advanced refunds on tax-exempt municipal bonds, and the American Infrastructure Bonds Act of 2020 to authorize a new class of “direct-pay” taxable municipal bond. Barker agreed that these municipal finance tools bridge funding gaps that allow local governments to match grant requirements. Barker also pressed for local governments to be able to refinance outstanding debts at lower interest rates.

In response to Cantwell’s question about where to focus investment, Porcari showed support for existing INFRA and CRISI grants, but advocated for increased funding, broadening the eligibility, and providing more technical assistance to local jurisdictions. Porcari advocated for funding mega projects of national and regional significance and then increasing INFRA funding. Barker agreed that INFRA and BUILD are useful grant programs, but highlighted the importance of getting funds into the hands of localities, and to not forget the smaller cities and rural communities who need these funds.

Sen. Deb Fisher (R-NE) used her time to promote legislation that would allow the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to be better informed of frequently blocked crossings. Barker welcomed the increased data to know where to focus investment.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) pressed witness Porcari for a specific reason the Gateway rail tunnel project under the Hudson River continues to be delayed. Porcari cited the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) review, which sat with no response for over 27 months under the previous DOT leadership. Porcari also supported Blumenthal’s plans to ask the Biden Administration to implement the Connect Northeast Corridor 2035 Plan, and the Intercity Passenger Rail Trust Fund Act that would create a direct funding source for rail. This bill died in a previous session of Congress.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) concluded that it doesn’t matter how much funding Congress provides if projects are unable to be permitted. He referenced how the environmental review necessary to obtain such permits were previously streamlined in 2018 with the “One Federal Decision” policy representing all the necessary departments. One of President Biden’s early executive orders revoked this process, and Sullivan asked witnesses about the impacts of this decision. Porcari agreed that streamlining the process is imperative but disagreed about the importance of having one federal permitting agency. Instead, he said it is more crucial to have concurrent review by all the resource agencies, rather than consecutive review. Sullivan pushed back on the industry’s accepted standards for what constitutes as a quick turnaround saying, “do you think China takes five years for EIS’s when they build infrastructure?” Porcari rebutted, “China doesn’t have that process and a lot of their environment reflects that.” Sullivan agreed we shouldn’t cut corners, but again emphasized streamlining the process.

Sullivan then referenced a statistic from the Trump Administration that the United States is importing more Russian oil than ever and that decisions to curtail the production of oil and gas will push this country to import more oil and gas from “our enemies.” He asked witnesses thoughts’ on shovel-ready pipeline projects that would allow for more oil. Porcari expressed his personal opinion that natural gas is the bridge to an ideal transportation system, which he feels is electrification, and that anything that detracts from that goal is detrimental to the nation. Sullivan refuted this, noting other predictions that the United States will need oil and gas for potentially the next 8 decades.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) asked Porcari for further explanation of his desire for funding projects of national significance that are located in one particular state or jurisdiction. Porcari pressed for these types of projects to have their own separate funding source based on significance, no matter the mode of surface transportation.

Peters also asked McAndrews if his organization has the support it needs from Congress to invest in artificial intelligence and other technologies to increase efficiencies or if more explicit tools are needed. McAndrews said a bill such as the Rural Investment Advancement Act that Wicker previously introduced would be very helpful for project support for smaller ports. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) brought up the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent decision to share the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) radio frequency band with other non-transportation users. Porcari agreed that this decision is worrisome and will likely lead to signal interference, and therefore loss of investment if the system is unreliable. Porcari stated the FCC should have to prove there will be no interference before permitting mixed-use of the signal.

Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) asked which existing programs need to be fine-tuned, maintained, or eliminated altogether in considering a future transportation act. Porcari said the transit programs need existing funding and more technical assistance. Barker repeated earlier advice to streamline programs and increase eligibility. None of the witnesses advised against complete elimination of any of the existing programs.

Conclusion

Overall, the message of the hearing was one that’s been repeated for decades: more investment for America’s infrastructure is crucial to the vitality of the nation. Where exactly that investment will be focused, and how easily accessible grant programs will be to localities, is a conversation that will be continued until the passing of a new transportation law by Congress.

The full recording of the hearing can be accessed here.

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