More than eight months after the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation continues to move forward with distributing its portion of the measure's funding and implementing other provisions of the landmark legislation, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and congressional Democrats said at a July 19 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.
DOT accounts for by far the largest share of the IIJA's $1.2-trillion funding, receiving $660 billion for highways, bridges, transit, airports and port projects.
But Republicans on the panel criticized the agency's IIJA implementation. They raised questions about its emphasis on rehabilitating highways instead of adding more lanes, its plans to expand use of electric vehicles and its program to reconnect disadvantaged neighborhoods cut off from economic opportunities by highways and other transportation barriers.
Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) praised DOT's IIJA progress. He noted that so far, DOT has apportioned to states and other recipients $75 billion in IIJA fiscal 2022 highway transit and airport funds that are distributed by formula.
He said DOT also has issued funding-availability notices for “tens of billions” of additional dollars that will flow through 22 new or existing competitively awarded grant programs.
DeFazio said, “This is absolutely unprecedented, in terms of the investments ... and the pace at which we’re putting this money out.”
But, he added, “the stakes are high ... inflation is eating into what we’re going to be able to build. And the more quickly we can commit the funds, the more we will get.”
Buttigieg, the sole witness at the hearing, said that the IIJA “is going to help people get where they need to go while creating jobs and economic opportunity across the country. But he added that passing the infrastructure bill “is only the first step.”
The committee’s top Republican, Sam Graves (Mo.), said that the U.S. is facing multiple crises, including slowdowns in the supply chain, a shortage of workers and spikes in inflation.
Graves said a July 14 meeting held by committee Republicans to discuss infrastructure inflation showed that companies “are struggling with exploding costs across the board." He said that has led some companies to be unable to bid projects. Inflation is hitting state DOTs as well, Graves said. His home state’s DOT has estimated it will exceed its transportation plan by $140 million.
“This is not shaping up to be the infrastructure bill that Americans were promised," Graves said. "Now more than ever, this administration needs to focus on real infrastructure and on policies that can get us out of so many of these crises.”
Key Issues Debated
Turning to inflation, Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) asked whether DOT can issue guidance to states and other funding recipients requiring inflation adjustments in transportation project contracts.
Buttigieg said DOT officials “every day” are looking at possible steps to address inflation, but said he has not addressed imposing inflation-adjustment requirements. “But we can certainly look into that,” he added.
Buttigieg said one approach DOT is taking is “simply doing everything we can to ensure that projects move forward swiftly … The greater the rate of inflation, the greater the cost of delay.”
Graves again raised an issue that Republicans had cited before—a controversial Federal Highway Administration December 2021 guidance document that encourages states to prioritize use of IIJA formula funds for road repairs and rehabilitation over projects to add capacity.
Graves said the FHWA document is still a “serious source of concern and confusion" and “pushes the administration’s own priorities. He also said DOT is "doubling down" on similar guidance in notices dealing with applying for its competitive grant programs.
Buttigieg said states, not FHWA, are the entities that decide how highway dollars are spent and that the guidance does not change that. He also said DOT has not proposed reducing funds for states that launch projects to add capacity, nor is it forcing states to build transit lines instead of highways.
In another IIJA area, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) pointed to President Joe Biden’s directive to have electric vehicles account for 50% of cars sold by 2030.
The IIJA provides $7.5 billion over five years to create a nationwide network of EV charging stations.
Massey said charging an electric car would require 50 times as much electricity as running a home refrigerator, adding that there would not be enough power in the electric grid to meet Biden's EV goal.
“The reality is the capability is not going to be there," he said.
Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) urged the administration to take action to reduce high gasoline prices instead of pushing for a $1-billion IIJA program that seeks to reconnect disadvantaged neighborhoods cut off from economic opportunities by construction of highways and other transportation barriers.
Babin said the disadvantaged people “are being disproportionately oppressed by rising gas prices.”
The hearing, including Republicans' criticism of DOT's handling of the IIJA, was generally civil.
But things took a testy, negative turn near the end of the lengthy hearing, when Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) raised questions about Biden's fitness for office.
Nehls asked Buttigieg whether he had spoken to other Cabinet members about invoking the 25th amendment to replace Biden.
Buttigieg said that he had not done anything of the sort and called Nehls' question "insulting."
Buttigieg also said, “The President of the United States is as vigorous a colleague or boss as I have ever had the pleasure of working with.”