Senate Public Works Panel Kicks Off 2021 Infrastructure Hearings

This week, the Senate Environment and Public Work Committee’s hearing on infrastructure investment set some incredibly lofty goals for future investment in surface transportation. These goals (addressing climate change, improving equity, and fostering economic growth) represent an incredibly elusive trifecta for a body that has been slow to find a permanent solution to the funding issues that have come to define the policy discourse around surface transportation in the United States. Led by new chairman Tom Carper (D-DE), the Senate EPW Committee wrestled with their shared understanding of Motown, of all things, and several extremely important questions that will determine whether it will really be possible to pass infrastructure spending that gives States the flexibility and independence they want to improve their transportation infrastructure in a fair and equitable way with an eye towards the rapidly growing risks of the climate crisis while spurring a wide reaching economic recovery that lifts all Americans. 

The panelists for the February 24 hearing included Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan; Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland; Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, Colorado; and Victoria Sheehan, President of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. (Clicking on the witness name takes you to the PDF of their prepared statement.)

Governor Whitmer, a Democrat, made transportation investment a vocal part of her (successful) election campaign. She was going to “fix the damn roads” and said nothing was going to get in her way. She touted her administration’s moves to use bonds to finance much needed infrastructure investments and specifically highlighted the economic cost of letting infrastructure remain in a state of disrepair. She also suggested that there is a need for a federal vision of infrastructure development that prioritized equity and climate action as well as protected people whose livelihoods would be put at risk by inevitable shifts in the landscape of the labor market. 

Governor Hogan, a Republican, took a different approach in his opening remarks that contend that states need maximum flexibility to develop solutions to congestion on their own terms with predictable and consistent and no strings attached funding from the federal government and a focus on developing strong public-private partnerships. Where the two governors did agree was on the need to pass reauthorization of a long-term federal transportation bill as soon as possible. Both Governors also urged that any federal transportation bill be bipartisan in nature, which may not be asking much given that this committee was able to approve a reauthorization bill in the last Congress by a unanimous vote. 

Hogan and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) used a good deal of their speaking time to warn against ignoring problems with project delivery that they say are caused by the length of time spent conducting federal environmental reviews. Hogan endorsed recommendations like a two year goal for completion of environmental reviews and a 90 day timeline for related project authorizations, similar to what was proposed in recent years by former President Trump (with whom Hogan otherwise had plenty of disagreements).

Mayor Hancock started his remarks by urging the Senators to pass President Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” of COVID aid and economic stimulus funding and then made an ask that wouldn’t be repeated by any other of the panelists–Hancock asked for funds to be made available directly to local leaders and governments of large metropolitan areas. He based his case on the concentration of American economic activity in our urban centers and the soundness of the current structure of the FAST Act. According to Hancock, Surface Transportation Block Grants should be strategically used to boost local economies in metropolitan areas because local governments are better positioned to act on climate and racial injustice in infrastructure planning in efficient ways. (It should be noted that Hogan offered a rebuttal in a later exchange where he argued that state governments will work with local governments to develop programs that meet the needs of all of the areas in their jurisdiction.) 

For her part, AASHTO President Sheehan struck a tone similar to Governor Hogan in that she espoused the idea that the federal government should allow states as much flexibility as possible without what she called “unrealistic timelines” or obligations that would delay the distribution of funding. Sheehan also started the conversation about the Highway Trust Fund by highlighting the need for a long term and sustainable revenue solution for the Trust Fund. The NH DOT Commissioner tried to assure the senators that if given the necessary resources and state-level autonomy, state DOTs would be more than capable of managing performance, asset management, climate resiliency, equity, and emissions reductions. 

The questioning period didn’t produce too many particularly enlightening exchanges, save for the moment where it seemed like Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) brought up Rascal Flatt’s  “Life is a Highway” as a… metaphor for the hearing? 

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) did try to press Hogan (a known fan of public-private partnerships, or PPPs) on the efficacy of PPPs in urban centers, using Baltimore as an example of some of the urban failures, but this exchange was unfortunately cut short by Cardin’s questioning period ending. 

The Senators and the panelists repeatedly came back to the ideas of limiting regulations on state DOT’s and improving project delivery, but the problem that really seemed to stump everyone was what to do about the possibility that the in-progress shift to electric vehicles would eventually make gasoline taxes unworkable as the main revenue mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund, and whether or not to maintain the user-pay system by levying a new Vehicle Miles Traveled tax. This question had incredible stopping power for whatever conversation may have been steadily cruising along. What we do know is this: the list of problems that a comprehensive surface transportation bill is expected to solve is quite long. But if Congress can’t answer the most fundamental questions about the future of how we move (and how we pay for it), we’re going nowhere fast. 

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