With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act moving deeper into the funding rollout stage and fiscal year 2022 appropriations belatedly in place, congressional appropriators are focusing sharply on federal spending bills for 2023.

Senate and House committees are scrutinizing President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget requests for various agencies and construction interests are paying particular attention to what lawmakers say about the Dept. of Transportation and its portfolio of major infrastructure programs.

At an April 28 hearing, members of Senate appropriations subcommittee in charge of DOT spending quizzed Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the 2023 request, which he said totals $142 billion, including $36.8 billion in advanced appropriations from the IIJA. [View webcast of hearing here.]

Subcommittee chair Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) observed that the 2023 total is up “a modest 1.5%” from the enacted level for 2022.

Other than that comment, Schatz and other subcommittee members gave few hints about whether they would seek to increase, or cut, Biden’s proposed numbers for DOT programs.

But one topic that came up repeatedly was a bipartisan interest in moving transportation infrastructure projects more rapidly through the regulatory approval process.

Controversial FHWA Memo

Leading GOP members of the panel also revisited a controversial Federal Highway Administration memorandum which, they contended, seeks to emphasize using formula funds to upgrade existing highways over projects to expand road capacity.  

Schatz said, “We also need to be more efficient in building transportation systems," adding that it is “far more expensive” to build transportation projects in the U.S. than elsewhere. 

One factor, he suggested, is the “not in my backyard” stance taken by what he described as vocal opponents of projects.

To speed projects along, Schatz said government needs to use the tools it has to reduce financing costs and expedite reviews.

For example, he pointed to the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, an interagency body established under the 2015 FAST Act. Schatz said that entity is "an underused venue to try to get some of these timelines aligned."

Buttigieg noted that DOT is making use of the Federal Infrastructure Projects Permitting Dashboard, which tracks projects' progress through the permitting stages.

He also said the IIJA includes provisions aimed at speeding project reviews, such as language that codifies the “one federal decision” policy for decisions on transportation projects. 

That policy was outlined in a Trump administration executive order, and aims to have National Environmental Protection Act decisions within two years. The IIJA statutory language gives the policy more teeth.  

Republicans also questioned Buttigieg about the FHWA guidance memo, issued last December, which deals with projects that draw on IIJA formula funding.  [See ENR 3/3/2022 story on the memo here.]

New Capacity v. Upgrades

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the subcommittee’s top-ranking GOP member, said the memo “discourages states from moving ahead with projects that add highway capacity” and instead should put a priority on projects to improves existing roads.

Collins said the memo “has created a lot of angst and concern and is in conflict with our intent“ in drafting the IIJA. 

Collins asked Buttigieg directly whether he will rescind or revise the memorandum. 

He said he would “be happy to clarify the memo if it's continuing to cause confusion.”

But he added that the document “was crafted in a way to take great care to emphasize the importance that anything the Federal Highway Administration does must be compatible with the law as written. And our intent and our practice is to do just that.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a strong critic of the FHWA memo, said the document “remained an issue.” 

She told Buttigieg, “In my view, you're putting your foot on the scale for certain types of projects, rather than letting the states have the flexibility that they’ve enjoyed for so long.”

Buttigieg said DOT would continue to promote use of funds to keep highways in a “state of good repair.” But he added that DOT also would “continue to respect the flexibility that state [transportation] departments enjoy, and rightfully do under the law.”