Senate Appropriations Holds Hearing on Transportation System Resilience
May 14, 2021|Brianne Eby
On May 13, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies held a hearing, “Rethinking Disaster Recovery and Resiliency, Part 1: Protecting Our Nation’s Transportation Systems.” Witnesses included
- Polly Trottenberg, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation
- Elizabeth Repko, Acting Director of Physical Infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office
- Edwin H. Sniffen, Deputy Director of the Hawaii Department of Transportation
- Habib Dagher, Executive Director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine
In kicking off the hearing, new Chairman Brian Schatz (D-HI) iterated a point that was later echoed by others: that building for resilience saves money in the long term and allows for quicker recovery in the short term. He acknowledged an increase in major disaster events that affect transportation infrastructure and stated that while the Federal Highway Administration allows states to include resilience features when building back from disaster, the department as a whole “still needs to provide consistent guidance on the approval process and treat resilience as a core feature and not as an added luxury.”
Federal spending for resilience
Schatz discussed the dedicated funding for resilience as part of the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, including $8 billion for DOT ($3 billion for National Resilient Communities Challenge and $5 billion for PROTECT grants to support the development of resilient infrastructure, the latter of which was part of the Senate Public Works Committee’s highway reauthorization bill last Congress). He expressed concern that this funding is not enough and needs to be available to all modes, to which Deputy Secretary Trottenberg responded that resilience is baked in to other components of the more than $600 billion dedicated to transportation in the American Jobs Plan.
In response to a question from Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) about why surface transportation reauthorization was not included in the American Jobs Plan, Trottenberg indicated that the administration is “operating on two tracks.” Sen. Braun expressed his view that states are “doing a more responsible job for their share of infrastructure” since it is tied to definitive funding sources; in his state, a dependable five-year income stream attributed to recent raises in diesel and gas taxes. Braun asked Trottenberg about the feasibility of giving more federal dollars to states that carry a heavier share in funding transportation projects. Trottenberg pointed out that this already happens for transit through the Capital Investment Grants program, for which local share is a consideration factor. She said the administration thinks “skin in the game is important.” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) tacked on to this thread by saying it would be easier to get bipartisan support and taxpayer buy-in on rail investments if there were mechanisms in place for states to provide more funding, to which Trottenberg pointed to recent cost-sharing relationships between Amtrak and states as potential models to scale.
Improving coordination and the division of responsibility
Repko’s opening statement highlighted the integration component of GAO’s 2019 Disaster Resilience Framework, namely that there have been no coordinated efforts to promote resilience across federal agencies or between federal agencies and states, local governments, tribes, and territories. She pointed to a specific example following the 2017 hurricanes in which both DOT and FEMA paid applicants for the same expense. She stated that to improve integration, the federal government should consider coordinating programs, putting them on similar approval time frames, and giving applicants one place to go to ask questions.
Though this was a hearing about climate resilience, the recent cyber attack on the Colonial Pipeline offered another perspective on resilience of the nation’s digital infrastructure. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI) both asked Deputy Secretary Trottenberg about how USDOT collaborated with other federal agencies following this attack. Trottenberg pointed to a “whole of government” approach with agencies cooperating closely in real time, but expressed that in addition to intergovernmental collaboration, coordination with the private sector is needed in these situations since so much infrastructure is privately owned and operated. Sen. Collins multiple times iterated the need for mandatory reporting [to the federal government] of cyber attacks.
Different approaches toward resilience across settings
The notion of being cautious of a one size fits all approach with respect to green infrastructure came up more than once. Responding to a question from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) about formulating different resilience strategies for different types of terrains, Deputy Secretary Trottenberg indicated that an “interdisciplinary” approach is best, meaning states and localities need to be more empowered, but other non-transportation government agencies should also be involved, as well as private sector stakeholders like academic researchers.
When asked by Sen. Collins about how rural communities should consider resilience when they also face funding challenges for other basic needs, Repko indicated that rural communities face major resilience risks in that they do not have the redundancy of transportation infrastructure that will enable them to leave or receive aid in the event of a major storm. They also face administrative and capacity challenges, and federal incentives can help to build capacity in those places.
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