Senate Holds Hearing on IIJA Implementation
On Tuesday, November 17, the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard from local leaders on IIJA implementation challenges for local jurisdictions. Chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the subcommittee explored the successes of and barriers faced by city and county officials when leveraging the available funds appropriated in IIJA.
Four witnesses testified at the hearing (click on their name to read their prepared testimony):
- The Honorable Jacob Day, Mayor, City of Salisbury, MD
- Michael Carroll P.E, Deputy Managing Director, Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, City of Philadelphia
- Jim Wilcox, Chairman, Converse County Commission (WY)
- Jason Benson, Cass County Engineer (ND)
All four witnesses expressed their gratitude for the funding that IIJA has afforded their communities. Mayor Day outlined clearly how IIJA represents a departure from the way things have always been done. Aligning with their city priorities, IIJA is allowing them to build a safer, more just, and efficient city.
The successes of IIJA have not come without their challenges for local communities. These challenges that the witnesses expressed are best summed in the following categories: local priorities, permitting, and grant application.
Local Priorities: The four witnesses shared their support in the efforts of IIJA to infuse money at the local level, while also acknowledging the role that states play in helping to apportion that money. However, most expressed that an even greater emphasis on local government would allow them to work faster and more efficiently. Wilcox noted that local governments need the broadest flexibility and the most time to work. FHWA rules often are a burden that require funds to pass through state DOTs to implement certain programs. A locality might want to be more flexible to suit their locality’s specific needs, and a state might even be on board with that flexibility, but the federal box provides some difficulty tuning into those local needs and characteristics.
For example, Mayor Day presented a bridge project in Salisbury (US-213 Bus) as a cautionary tale of a lack of flexibility. The original design project was to incorporate the Maryland State Highway Administration’s standard for bike lanes. These lanes would’ve been unprotected and running immediately adjacent to heavy vehicle traffic amounting to about 35,000 vehicles a day. At the same time, the city was planning an urban greenway that was to run parallel to this route and would provide adequate cycling accommodations.
The obvious solution was to combine the projects to get both vehicles and cyclists safely across the river, but because the State DOT and the local planning processes were siloed, it took a great amount of effort to make that happen. While the bridge will now include a separate bicycle path, time and money could have been saved if there was more flexibility in the requirement of those funds being funneled through the state and its planning requirements. It is important to note that this is one local perspective and Maryland State Highway officials may view these proceedings differently.
Permitting: Wilcox highlighted how difficult permitting can be, especially for small local and rural entities. Permitting has always presented challenges in modern day infrastructure construction. Eno’s project delivery analysis has pointed to unnecessarily stringent permitting requirements and regulations have added time and cost to rail infrastructure projects. Wilcox points specifically to the burden of the NEPA process, indicating that there is little or no reason to require it for the replacement of a bridge that has been there for decades. Ranking Member Sen. Cramer (R-ND)’s opening statement also acknowledged that the NEPA process might be above and beyond what is required for a pipeline project if it will ultimately reduce methane use and CO2 emissions.
Grant Application: Sen Carper (D-DE) asked the witnesses specifically about their experiences with applications for USDOT grants that already have developed Notice of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) and awarded grants. USDOT has yet to issue NOFOs or open applications for many of the IIJA grant programs, including those for charging and fueling infrastructure. Their answers can help improve that process as they roll out these new grants. Benson expressed that previous IIJA NOFOs and application deadlines have happened in quick succession, giving localities, especially small rural ones who are less experienced with grant applications and have less staff capacity, not enough time to put together a project that would be eligible. If they had more of a heads up, they could have applied in this first year the grant is available, but now many wait in anticipation with their projects and ideas for next year’s application window. New grant programs should take this into account, especially in their first year of implementation.
Carroll also expressed frustration in the rigidity of grant eligibility requirements. Thinking ahead to EV charging grant money, their equity goals more be more easily met in Philadelphia if there is more flexibility on where charging stations can be placed, allowing them to intentionally serve communities that have traditionally been underinvested in. Wilcox agreed, stating that the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Program guidelines requiring a maximum charger spacing of 50 miles will not work well in Wyoming as there are some instances where they don’t even have gas stations every 50 miles along the designated National Alternative Fuels Corridors.
Ultimately, local governments have been benefitting from the IIJA funding by specifically focusing on local impacts. As IIJA continues to be implemented and as future legislation is considered, keeping local interests in mind and addressing their unique needs in a simple and flexible manner will be an important policy consideration.