Senate EPW Committee Reviews IIJA & IRA Implementation

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works this week held a hearing with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Administrator Shailen Bhatt (view his written testimony here), on implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, otherwise known was the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act.

The hearing evaluated FHWA’s implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Some highlight issues discussed were: the I-95 partial collapse in Philadelphia, the National Per-Mile User Fee Pilot, the Delphi and FMIS 3.5 billion discrepancy, Greenhouse Gas Emission Measures, Electric Vehicles, funding delays, and transportation safety.

I-95 partial collapse

The I-95 partial collapse in Philadelphia was the highlight of the hearing with EPW Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) acknowledging the incident in his opening statement. The I-95 partial collapse occurred after a tanker truck caught on fire underneath the highway. Sen. Carper  and other members commended the FHWA Administrator Bhatt on the current efforts being made by him and staff. Administrator Bhatt also addressed the I-95 collapse in his opening testimony and discussed how he joined members of the Pennsylvania Congressional Delegation and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to tour the site.

Bhatt further discussed FHWA efforts in offering support to re-open the section as quickly as possible and partnering with sister agencies on emergency relief support. Administrator Bhatt stated, “we are laser focused on working with our partners to get the road open as quickly as possible”. Sen. Carper questioned Bhatt on FHWA’s role in coordinating with State and local agencies in response to the I-95 collapse and any takeaways or lessons learned from the tragedy that can be used for the future. Administrator Bhatt provided updates such as DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg visiting the site Tuesday for a briefing, President Biden’s request for daily briefings, and the quick release of $3 million for the State of Pennsylvania in response to critical repair efforts.

Bhatt emphasized the importance of infrastructure investment and that FHWA is waiting for the NTSB to conduct an investigation, which will hopefully inform FHWA efforts to prevent such accidents. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) stated that he was glad the $3 million was released quickly and is confident in the quick response of FHWA, yet “it just seemed 3 million dollars wasn’t enough”. Bhatt assured Fetterman that the released fund is a down payment and that more funds would be released as needed. Administrator Bhatt mentioned “it’s going to be an innovative fix that will get us to a resolution much quicker and restore traffic on 1-95 which is crippling that region right now”.

National VMT Fee Pilot

Carper commented on the delay of establishing the advisory board and national study for the National VMT Fee Pilot. (Eno’s ongoing research will offer recommendations in the coming months to help inform the design and implementation of that pilot.) When asked about the timeline for setting up the advisory board and national study, Administrator Bhatt responded, “we are going to work expeditiously to get the advisory committee set up and we’ll make sure that we get this important data for the committee as we look to reauthorize the program”. IIJA required USDOT to establish the Federal System Funding Alternatives Advisory Board within three months of the bill becoming law, a deadline that is over a year past.

Delphi and FMIS $3.5 billion discrepancy

With a $3.5 billion discrepancy in contract authority between the two computerized financial systems, Delphi and FMIS, concerns on how state DOTs manage their programs and their ability to move forward was bought by Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV). Capito requested for updates on the matter. Administrator Bhatt shared that he has been in close contact with the States. In addition, a task force is working “diligently” to address potential impacts.

Bhatt stated that he is hopeful that they can provide more details soon and that “they are working towards getting a resolution as quickly as they can”. Capito asked for a timeline on when things would be resolved “would that be end of summer or end of the year?”. Administrator Bhatt responded, “as quickly as possible, definitely this year”, and that he would continue to be in close contact with Sen. Capito’s office.

Greenhouse Gas Performance Emission Measure

Support and opposition were expressed for the FHWA proposed rulemaking. Members not in favor of the greenhouse gas performance emission measures questioned the authority of FHWA in proposing the bill. Both Capito and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) were opposed to FHWA imposing a greenhouse gas performance emission measure and associated targets on State DOTs, and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) without authority from Congress. Capito hoped that the rulemaking would not move forward, and Cramer thought the proposed rulemaking was impractical in rural areas.

Both members asked Administrator Bhatt if he believes he has the authority to move forward with the proposed rulemaking. Administrator Bhatt responded by mentioning that the FHWA is following the law, and USDOT lawyers will examine the authority aspect. Administrator Bhatt also mentioned that MAP-21 provided FHWA authority to propose the rulemaking. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), was signed into law under the Obama administration in 2012. expressed support for the greenhouse gas measures and commended the FHWA for utilizing authority under MAP-21. Furthermore, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) stated that climate change is a “deadly serious matter” and strongly encouraged Administrator Bhatt to execute FHWA’s measure of authority on greenhouse measures.

Electric Vehicles

Sen. Capito expressed concerns for the safety impacts of electric vehicles on the nation’s roadways as the rise of electric vehicle production increases under the support of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Capito discussed how electric vehicles weigh more than gasoline vehicles and proceeded to ask Administrator Bhatt how the FHWA plans to address this issue and why has the FHWA not conducted any research on this issue. Bhatt agreed that the weight of electric transportation such as electric freight trucks is a concern and would look further into the issue.

Sen. Jeffrey Merkley (D-OR) discussed rolling out electric vehicle charging stations and the push to have a national standard to make is simple to charge electric vehicles. Administrator Bhatt mentioned President’s Biden goal to have 500,000 chargers, and that there would be successful outcomes. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) addressed equity issues regarding the lack of electric vehicle charging stations in environmental justice communities and the need for equitable deployment of electric vehicle charging stations. Markey’s own bill, the Community Vehicle Charging Act, addresses this issue. Bhatt stated that FHWA is working to ensure that all communities are covered in regard to charging stations. Carper expressed his views in the need for charging stations and pointed out that no funds have been awarded yet. Bhatt said that some aspects of the delays are due to granted extensions; in additions, they are working with States to employ electric vehicle chargers.

Transportation Alternatives and Safety

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) addressed the importance of the transportation alternatives, and asked what is being done to make sure communities with transportation challenges have access to funds. Administrator Bhatt gave examples of the local match on planning requirements being waived for initiatives such as Complete Streets to ensure access to funds. John Fetterman mentioned the need for operating funding for SEPTA in the next few weeks, which Administrator Bhatt acknowledged that it is a critical need. Carper asked Administrator Bhatt about Bus Rapid Transit Systems; Administrator Bhatt stated that the FHWA is in close communication with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Cardin, Fetterman, and Carper highlighted the increase in injuries and deaths on the nation’s roadways and asked about Administrator Bhatt’s efforts in addressing this crisis. Administrator Bhatt stated that fatalities are taken seriously, safe transportation alternatives are an imperative, and safety is a number one priority under the National Roadway Safety Strategy.

Additional Topics

Sen. Whitehouse asked about the next round of funding applications for the Bridge Investment Program (BIP). Sen. Merkley addressed the need for seismic resiliency for bridges and the to be considered a factor in the FHWA grant programs. (Ed. Note: Seismic retrofit of bridges started out as a mostly California priority, but Cascadia is now paying attention.) Markey and Sen. Daniel Sullivan (R-AK) mentioned approval for funding under the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program, a program that they are partnering in, yet funding had not yet been received and expressed the need to deploy funds as quickly as possible. Sen. Sullivan requested Administrator Bhatt to review a project called “Moose Loop” and bought up additional concerns such as the implementation of Protect Program in coastal communities and permitting reforms.

Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE) addressed the challenges smaller localities face in applying for discretionary grants and the need for additional flexibilities so that states can effectively leverage large funds. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) mentioned the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act and asked Administrator Bhatt when would additional funds be authorized by FHWA to address backlog and road closures especially during storms in WY. Bhatt acknowledged the critical issue of truck parking and that discretionary grants have been awarded to address truck parking.

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