Senate Commerce Examines Rural Access to Infrastructure

March 9, 2017

On March 1, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing to assess U.S. infrastructure needs and study the specific challenges that rural Americans face in accessing transportation and information networks.

The witness panel for the hearing, entitled Connecting America: Improving Access to Infrastructure for Communities Across the Country, represented primarily rural interests:

  • Dennis Daugaard, Governor of South Dakota (Testimony)
  • Philip Levine, Mayor of Miami Beach (Testimony)
  • Carlos Braceras, Executive Director, Utah Department of Transportation, and Secretary-Treasurer, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (Testimony)
  • Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association (Testimony)

Just twelve hours prior to the hearing, President Donald Trump wrapped up his first address to a joint session of Congress that reiterated his desire to rebuild and renew America’s infrastructure. Trump’s words echoed into the next day as Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-SD) kicked off the hearing:

“A more efficient transportation network boosts the competitiveness of nearly every sector of our economy,” he said. “Unfortunately, what used to be the best transportation infrastructure system in the world is now falling behind, unable to keep pace with the growing demands of our economy.”

In his opening statement, Thune advocated for increasing investments to transportation and information infrastructure (e.g., broadband access for rural communities).

Thune reasserted the importance of direct funding for transportation projects before tackling the urban-rural divide for public-private partnerships (P3s).

“P3s can enhance capital efficiency by transferring greater responsibility to private entities in exchange for access to some sort of revenue, such as tolls, fees, or availability payments,” he said.

However, Thune argued, densely populated urban areas are often more conducive to P3s than rural areas. He went on to say that many highway projects do not make sense for private sector investment, and P3s currently account for only a small share of highway projects.

“We should be focused on what works for different areas of the country, not locked-in to a particular approach,” Thune contested. “This includes supporting existing authorized programs that work.”

(Asst. Ed. note: This has been an ongoing theme in Congressional hearings lately – Members and Senators on both sides of the aisle are constantly reiterating that private financing can only do so much for both urban and rural communities. For more insights, read ETW’s analysis of the joint address here.)

Sticking to the topic of funding, Commerce ranking minority member Bill Nelson (D-FL) called for increased funding in infrastructure progress and cited the $1 trillion Senate Democrats’ Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure as a viable solution that increases direct federal investments in infrastructure.

Nelson also railed against private financing as a catch-all solution for America’s infrastructure needs, stating “while some have suggested that loans and financing are a silver bullet, they are just tools. And these tools are useless, if you don’t first have significant funding.”

The key theme of this hearing was the need for states to have a diverse set of funding mechanisms – both public and private – to choose from.

South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard’s testimony highlighted the benefits of significant federal investments in rural areas for allowing trucks to move goods across the country, enhancing intermodal networks that move agricultural products and natural resources, and “access to scenic wonders like Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, and many other national parks.”

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine called for investments in infrastructure resiliency projects: “Along our shoreline, climate change is not just a talking point, but an immediate threat to communities up and down the coast. This is doubly true in South Florida, where the porous limestone base and low topography make our communities especially vulnerable to sea level rise.”

Levine estimated that 25% of Miami Beach’s streets will be below the projected high tides by 2050, and that Miami-Dade County will need over 23 million cubic yards of sand to combat sea level rise in the coming years.

Levine also highlighted Miami Beach’s ongoing struggle to build a robust public transit option to connect mainland Miami with Miami Beach. And, because no Floridian’s testimony before Congress is complete without a Disney World reference, Levine mentioned the Brightline high-speed rail system that will soon connect Miami-Dade to Orlando.

These sentiments were largely echoes by Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation. Braceras called on Congress to provide robust federal funding for the nation’s highways, particularly in large Western states like Utah, and also to reduce regulatory barriers and shorten the lengthy environmental review processes for infrastructure projects.

Braceras seems to have little affection for unproven methods of infrastructure funding, evidenced by this plea to Congress in his written testimony:

“Based on the federal surface transportation program’s track record of success, we recommend if you and the President deliver a significant infrastructure package in the coming months, any increase in federal funds should flow through the existing program structure rather than expending scarce time and energy on untested new approaches.”


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