Secretary Buttigieg Joins House Transportation Committee for Marathon Testimony

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testifies before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

On June 27, 2024, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Because the hearing’s stated purpose was broad – discussing the USDOT’s programs, priorities, and fiscal year 2025 budget proposal – and the Secretary’s last appearance before the Committee was more than nine months ago, Members of Congress took full advantage of the opportunity.

Some Members focused their lines of questioning on district-specific USDOT grant awards, emphasizing the importance of federal financial support to their communities’ transportation systems. Other members probed – sometimes aggressively – the Biden-Harris Administration’s support of emerging technologies such as electric vehicles and high-speed rail. Though Buttigieg’s six hours of almost continuous testimony covered myriad transportation modes, USDOT grant programs, and current issues, several themes emerged.

Is USDOT Funding Distribution Behind Schedule?

Throughout the hearing, Buttigieg stressed the historic nature of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law November 2021, which provides $1.2 trillion in federal transportation and infrastructure spending through fiscal year 2026. Distributing this unprecedented amount of funds to grant awardees has posed both opportunities and challenges. Though Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-WA) touted the USDOT’s rate of grant-making as “impressive,” Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) disagreed. Graves cited previous hearing witnesses who claim that distribution delays have crippled local projects – raising the costs of construction with inflation if not necessitating the abandonment of projects altogether.

Buttigieg recognized the complications caused by funding delays. Though the USDOT faces workforce challenges that make expediting the application review process challenging, he cited multiple steps the Department is undertaking to ease the burdens on project sponsors. First, Buttigieg claimed the USDOT is working to provide technical assistance to rural and low-income communities that may have never applied for federal funding. Second, he highlighted the USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence as a resource for project managers to share knowledge on application writing and project delivery. Buttigieg shared that infrastructure improvement ultimately requires the cooperation of local, state, and federal players.

Democrats Express Concerns Over Rail Safety

Two days before the House hearing, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published its final report documenting the cause of the February 2023 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.1 In light of its release, Democratic Members eagerly pressed Buttigieg on the Department’s commitment to improving freight rail safety.

In his opening remarks, Buttigieg called on Congress to pass the Railway Safety Act. During subsequent exchanges with Members Larsen and Chris Deluzio (D-PA), he enumerated the bill’s benefits: lifting caps on the maximum fines issued to railroad providers, requiring second crew members on certain freight trains, and expediting the transition of DOT-111 tank cars, used in the East Palestine derailment, to better-insulated DOT-117 tank cars. Though Buttigieg expressed optimism that Automated Train Inspection (ATI) systems could improve rail safety, Members Valerie Foushee (D-NC), Val Hoyle (D-OR), and Troy Nehls (R-TX) recommended these systems be treated with caution – augmenting manual inspections rather than replacing them.

Deluzio, a leading sponsor of the Railway Safety Act, provided the most compelling testimony on this topic. Many of his constituents in Beaver County, PA live within the derailment evacuation zone. During his questioning, he expressed shock that Norfolk Southern withheld information from first responders who were “pressured” to authorize the vent and burn of hazardous materials onboard, which threatened the health of people in his district. He asked Buttigieg a pointed question: “Do you trust the railroads to regulate themselves?” Buttigieg responded succinctly: “Absolutely not.”

New York City Finds Its Spotlight

Mobility issues in the New York City region took center stage. Multiple members used their five minutes of questioning to express either support, including Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), or disdain, including Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-OR) and Marc Molinaro (R-NY), for congestion pricing plans in Lower Manhattan. Though the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was set to begin charging vehicles entering Manhattan’s central business district starting on June 30, New York Governor Kathy Hochul surprised the public by canceling the plan three weeks earlier. Rep. Molinaro’s gripes with New York’s congestion pricing implementation were mainly procedural. He maligned the governor’s unilateral announcement, calling it a “political decision.” He then asked Buttigieg if the governor informed the USDOT of her decision before informing the public. Buttigieg vaguely recalled a phone call.

Members were, however, united in their dissatisfaction with the current state of regional travel in the Northeast Corridor. New Jersey Transit and Amtrak have experienced frequent rail service outages the last six weeks, with trains arriving to and departing from Penn Station sometimes delayed for hours or canceled outright. Causes for disruption have included malfunctioning circuit breakers, delayed trains, and crumbling tunnels. Reps. Tom Kean (R-NJ) and Rob Menendez (D-NJ), who stated the significance of rail service to their constituents, highlighted a letter the entire New Jersey Congressional delegation sent to Secretary Buttigieg two days earlier. The letter calls on the Department to investigate the causes of the delays and report its findings to Congress. While Buttigieg acknowledged their frustration, the discussion became pointed when Kean asked how Congress can ensure Amtrak uses federal funding to improve service. Citing the House Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Committee’s 2025 appropriations bill, Buttigieg quipped that the chamber could sustain Amtrak funding rather than cutting it.

Republicans Malign Electric Vehicles

Federal support for the adoption of electric vehicles proved a flashpoint for Committee Republicans. The conversation began constructively when Graves pointed out the growing inadequacy of fuel taxes to support the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Graves called on the Committee to determine how user pay systems can fund U.S. transportation systems in an electric or alternative-fuels future. Reps. Rick LaMalfa (R-CA), Rudy Yakym (R-IN), and Chavez-DeRemer questioned the Department’s progress building out public electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Buttigieg reminded the members that most chargers will be built in the later-half of this decade.

This is where constructive dialogue ended. A contingent of Republican members derailed the conversation, intent on blaming the USDOT for efforts to make the U.S. transportation system more environmentally sustainable. First, Reps. Scott Perry (R-PA), Tracey Mann (R-KS), LaMalfa, Aaron Bean (R-FL), and Kevin Kiley (R-CA) claimed that the Department is forcing consumers to purchase electric vehicles. The federal government has provided subsidies for electric vehicle purchase, but no mandates (so far – it remains to be seen how the out-years of the EPA’s mileage increases would be implemented). Then, Perry claimed that electric vehicle sales are dropping. In actuality, year-over-year sales figures show EV sales are still rising, though the rate of increase has levelled off. The most surprising exchange of the hearing occurred when Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) emphasized the “minute” contribution of passenger vehicles in the United States to global carbon emissions, seeming to suggest that a nationwide transition to electric vehicles would make an insignificant difference to climate change. “By that logic, Congressman,” Buttigieg replied, “none of us should vote. We’re all doing our part.”

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