In a wide-ranging Senate oversight hearing that focused mostly on the Federal Highway Administration's implementation of the highway and bridge portion of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a senior lawmaker outlined the $1-trillion measure's huge impact in dollars distributed, projects supported and jobs created. 

But a couple of members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, both Democrats, quizzed the session's sole witness, FHWA Administrator Shailen Bhatt, for what they see as the Biden administration's too-slow pace in rolling out the IIJA's $5-billion program of formula funds to build a nationwide network of electric-vehicle charging stations.

The National Electric Vehicle (NEVI) Installation Program is being overseen by a joint Dept. of Transportation-Dept. of Energy office.

The joint office also is responsible for the IIJA-created EV Charging and Fueling Infrastructure program, funded at $2.5 billion, which awards discretionary grants via competition.

But most of the EV-charger discussion at the hearing appeared to focus on the NEVI formula funding program. 

“I remain concerned about the pace by which EV charging infrastructure is being installed," said Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.). “Some states are doing a good job of using the federal monies and getting this work underway. Some are not."

Bhatt noted that President Biden had set a goal of having 500,000 charging ports in place by the end of the 2020s and "we believe we are on track to hit that goal." There are now about 183,000 in place, he said.

Bu he also noted, "The vast majority of those are private sector."

As for the ports that received IIJA NEVI formula funds, Bhatt said, there are just six or seven in place.

Bhatt added that he was "not happy" with being "months behind in the program's progress."

"But with the amount of work that was needed to get the program stood up," he added, "we want to continue to work with every single state to accelerate [the ports'] delivery."

Carper said he is considering holding a new hearing, concentrating on the EV charging program.

The most pointed critic was Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who said that with only seven NEVI sites are open to date in the U.S. "That is a vast administrative failure." He told Bhatt that the EV situation "needs to be fixed and it needs intense attention."

Merkley acknowledged that some of the slowdown in the EV spread is due to trying to work out a common standard to use in the charging stations.

'Transformative Impact'

Overall, Carper said the IIJA “is already having a transformative impact across our country.” Carper, a main author of the legislation, cited American Road & Transportation Association figures showing that since the law’s enactment, more than $128 billion for roads and bridges has been distributed or announced, supporting more than 70,000 new projects in that sector alone.

In another benchmark, Carper said that according to the White House, an average of 2,800 jobs were added in the highway, street and bridge construction industry per month in 2023–four times the number of jobs that industry was adding per month between 2011 and 2019. 

 Carper also said that for the economy overall, more than 15.5 million total jobs have been created since the start of the Biden administration.

Another high-profile topic came up for discussion that was not part of the IIJA, Committee member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) discussed the needs of the planned replacement for Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge. The bridge collapsed March 26 when it was struck by a huge container ship, killing six construction workers.

Bhatt praised the work of FHWA, the Maryland Dept. of Transportation and other federal, state and local agencies for quickly carrying out what he termed the "monumental task to clean up the site" and develop plans to rebuild the bridge. Bhatt also said, “The coordinated response by government and industry gives me great optimism.”

Cardin, a native Baltimorean, said Maryland appreciated the initial $60 million in emergency relief funds (ER) that FHWA provided to the state days after the tragedy. The ER funds “have been extremely helpful, Cardin said.”

Seeking 100% Key Bridge Federal Funding

But he also said he wanted to ensure that the envisioned replacement bridge would qualify for 100% federal funding, as was the case with the rebuild after the 2007 collapse of the Interstate-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, in which 13 people died and 145 were injured. 

Bhatt said that for the successor for the Francis Scott Key Bridge, President Joe Biden "has been very clear that he wants 100% funding for the bridge.”

But a 100% federal share would require new federal legislation and so far, no legislative vehicle has emerged 

And Cardin underscored that Maryland would need that funding soon. He said the state expects that it will announce the selection of the design-build team for the Baltimore bridge project in late summer or early fall.

Trust Fund Advisory Board

As with other congressional hearings, lawmakers at the June 5 hearing also highlighted a wide range of specific provisions that they each felt merit special attention.

Among other IIJA-related other topics, Carper asked Bhatt about the status of long-overdue federal appointments to an IIJA-created advisory board to study alternative revenue mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund. The panel originally was required to be named in about February 2022.

Bhatt said FHWA has advanced the recommendations for board members to the DOT secretary and said he hoped that they would be announced "in the very short term."

Buy-American Proposal

Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) asked whether FHWA would "balance" Buy America requirements with the availability of U.S. made products. Bhatt said Biden wants projects to proceed as quickly as possible and to support U.S. manufacturing, "and there is obviously tension between those two goals."

FHWA in March proposed to drop its more-than-four-decades-old general waiver from Buy America mandates for manufactured materials used on federal-aid highway projects. The proposal is still pending.

Lummis asked Bhatt to ensure that the Buy America requirements are "practicable and workable." 

Bhatt said FHWA would "follow the law" but will take the 130 comments it has received into account before making decisions.

Story updated on 06/07/2024 to correct the figures for average monthly highway, street and bridge construction jobs created in 2023 and to show that the 15.5 million jobs created referred to the economy overall, not just in the construction sectors.  Also, a mention of the IIJA's Charging and Fueling Infrastructure program has been added.