Shailen P. Bhatt, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Highway Administration, has moved a step closer to Senate approval, making it through his confirmation hearing with strong backing from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.), probable support from the panel's other Democrats and no Republicans declaring their opposition.  

To be sure, in his Sept. 14 appearance before the Environment and Public Works Committee, Bhatt—former head of the Delaware and Colorado departments of transportation —did face tough questions from Republicans on the panel who are unhappy about how FHWA is implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

[View webcast of the hearing here.]

Carper called the nominee “especially well qualified” for the top FHWA job and said he “brings a wealth of experience to this role."  Biden nominated him on July 21.

Carper praised Bhatt's work leading the Delaware DOT, noted his stint as an associate FHWA administrator in the Obama administration and his most recent position, as a senior vice president at engineering giant AECOM.

Carper also said that FHWA is at "a pivotal time," continuing the daunting task of distributing the first installments of about $350 billion in IIJA funds, the largest share of the measure's $1.2-trillion total.

Much of that aid is allocated by formula, but FHWA also is in charge of awarding billions of dollars in grants via competitions among states and localities.

What's more, FHWA received an additional $5 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act, enacted on Aug. 16, including grants to reconnect neighborhoods cut off from economic, education and health care resources by highways built over past decades.

Setting Priorities

In his opening statement at the hearing, Bhatt outlined some priorities, if he is confirmed. He emphasized the importance of safety. He noted that highway deaths rose 10.5% last year compared with 2020, and said, “We must deploy every tool to immediately reverse this trend.” 

He added, “We must also restore economic strength,” stating that the Interstate highway system “requires investment and innovation so we keep our competitive advantage for the 21st Century.”

Bhatt also underlined the importance of fostering transportation equity and addressing climate change.

Questions on FHWA Guidance Memo

But GOP members of the committee, especially its top Republican, Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), were critical of IIJA-related actions that FHWA has taken and quizzed Bhatt about his views.

Capito said she has has “a great deal of concern when it appears the agency is outright neglecting to implement certain provisions of the bill, mainly the project delivery actions.” 

For example, the IIJA contains language aimed at speeding federal regulatory reviews of highway projects, such as setting a goal for an agency to reach a final environmental review decision within about two years.  

Capito also reiterated her strong opposition to a FHWA guidance document issued last December that deals with how states should use the IIJA’s formula-based highway funding. 

She said the policy document "imposes a one-size-fits-all approach," encourages states to shift some highway funds to transit programs and discourages them from “moving forward with projects that add capacity.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) asked Bhatt about project delays. Bhatt said that in his earlier state DOT roles, “I’ve tried to always push as quickly as possible to get projects completed.” He added, “And if confirmed, I will bring that same mindset to the Federal Highway Administration.”

Inhofe, who seemed to react favorably to Bhatt, asked him about his views on projects that add highway capacity, a particular sticking point for Republicans in the December FHWA memo. Bhatt said, “I’ve added capacity in every state that I’ve worked in.” 

If confirmed, he said, he would “judge those projects according to the law.”

Bhatt told Capito that he had heard from industry stakeholders that there was "some confusion" about the December document but added, "I believe that a lot of that confusion is beginning to abate" because of statements from U.S. DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg that he intends to follow the IIJA requirements.

Bhatt said that if he is approved for the FHWA position, he would want to make sure that state DOTs understand that FHWA officials "just want to be consistent in following the law."

The agency has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator ever since the start of the Biden administration. Stephanie Pollack, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, has been FHWA's deputy administrator since February 2021 and has been its acting administrator since July 21.

Carper did not indicate when the committee might vote on Bhatt's nomination.