Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Wednesday voiced support of the federal government investing in infrastructure while also streamlining the permitting and approval process to speed up the delivery of road and bridge projects.
“America’s transportation networks are essential, obviously, we all agree and we all know this, to local economies, to state economies and to our national economy as well,” she said during an address to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “The effects of our infrastructure, the state of our infrastructure, is incalculable in terms of the quality of life that our citizens and our residents have.”
She said more than $63 billion of the Department of Transportation’s $87 billion in appropriations in fiscal year 2018 were invested to support infrastructure projects across the country. The fiscal year 2019 omnibus will provide the department with a $400 million increase over last year’s funding and the Federal Highway Administration with an additional $3.3 billion, she explained.
“Money aside, as important as that is, the department is also striving to make structural changes, for example in making it easier from a process perspective to build infrastructure,” Chao said.
She said too many construction projects are behind schedule and over budget, referencing a Mackenzie analysis that found America’s preconstruction process is among the slowest in the world. The administration has pushed “to cut the red tape” and streamline the process with concurrent review processes among government agencies, she explained.
“It also establishes target completion dates for federal review of large projects and holds accountable the lead government department or agency when deadlines are not met,” Chao said. “The goal here is to make every dollar invested in infrastructure go further without compromising outcomes. In fact, we believe that this will facilitate the outcome.”
Her speech followed remarks from Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., ranking member of the House committee; Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee; and Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., ranking member on the Senate committee.
“Congress needs to commit to funding the needed infrastructure highway projects so that we can keep pace with the demand, and the demand is out there,” Barrasso said. “The time has come to make significant investments in our roads and bridges and to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent.”
Carper said about $13 billion more was spent last year from the transportation trust than revenues that were collected. The Highway Trust Fund also is set to become insolvent within the next several years.
DeFazio once again proposed raising the federal gas tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon for gas and 24.4 cents for diesel since 1993 without an index for inflation, as a short-term bridge until a vehicle miles traveled program can be instituted.
“I think there’s a point at which the American people get it,” he said. “They’re tired of congestion. They’re tired of blowing out tires and breaking wheels in potholes. They’re tired of transit systems that are decrepit and don’t work. It’s time for the federal government to step up, step back in and become a better partner.”
DeFazio later added: “They’re willing to pay a user fee particularly if we bring back Article 1 projects, which is what some call earmarks. … Why shouldn’t elected representatives through a transparent process be able to spend a small amount of money, bring it home and show people what they’re going to get for a small increase in their gas tax?”
Graves, however, said gas taxes have provided diminishing returns as vehicles become more fuel efficient. He said he supports a vehicles miles traveled program, which has had pilot tests in several states.
Graves also said the House infrastructure bill will be broader and more comprehensive than what he expects out of the Senate. Regardless, with the presidential election looming in 2020, the package needs to be “done quicker rather than later,” he said.
“I do think we have a fairly short timeline,” he said. “If we don’t have something done at least out of the House of Representatives by August, I don’t believe it’s going to happen simply because of the election and everything that comes along with that.”
Graves added that DeFazio wants to see something out of the House Committee by May, which he called “doable — very, very doable.”