Chairman Carper’s Opening Statement: “Building Back Better: Investing in Transportation while Addressing Climate Change, Improving Equity, and Fostering Economic Growth and Innovation.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held the hearing titled: “Building Back Better: Investing in Transportation while Addressing Climate Change, Improving Equity, and Fostering Economic Growth and Innovation.” Below is the opening statement of Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“Good morning, everyone.

“We are delighted to be joined today—virtually—by a noteworthy panel of witnesses to discuss with us surface transportation infrastructure: Governor Whitmer, Governor Hogan, Mayor Hancock, and Commissioner Sheehan. Welcome to the Environment and Public Works Committee’s first policy hearing of the 117th Congress!

“Here in Washington today, the sun is finally out after a week of brutal winter storms.

“But despite the sunshine and blue skies that greeted us this morning, our country still faces major crises. 

“While our economy is starting to show signs of life, close to fifteen million people in the United States remain unemployed and roughly half of them have given up looking for a job.

“Across Texas, families are struggling to recover from a catastrophic ice storm, with over eight million people still without safe drinking water—the latest tragedy in the increasingly frequent extreme weather and climate events in recent years.  This comes on the heels of last year’s raging wildfires in California and Colorado the size of my state. Hurricane-force winds in Iowa that flattened a third of that state’s crops. And get this, every 100 minutes, Louisiana is losing a football field of land to rising sea levels.

“Scientists tell us that if climate change is left unchecked, these disasters are only going to get worse.

“A raging pandemic. Millions of jobless Americans. A growing climate crisis that demands bold action. So, what do we do about it? As it turns out, smart investments in our transportation infrastructure enable us to tackle all three of these challenges.

“We can improve the conditions of our roads, highways, and bridges in ways that create millions of good-paying jobs, lift up communities, build a more sustainable economy, and improve our air quality for a healthier, more prosperous future for all of us.

“The American people are counting on us to make this happen. They don’t want to hear us talking about what needs to be done. They want us to work together and get it done.

“As we gather today, less than half of our federal-aid highways and bridges are in good condition. Much of our infrastructure is significantly outdated. It was built for different ranges of temperature, rainfall, and sea levels. In the last ten years, we’ve put nearly $19 billion in emergency funds—beyond what we were already providing from the Highway Trust Fund—into repairing road and transit systems that were damaged by natural disasters and extreme weather.

“Poor road conditions and design flaws create safety challenges, too. Motor vehicle crashes are one of the top causes of unintentional lethal injuries in the United States. Pedestrians and bicyclists face particularly grave danger, as roads are too often designed without a safe space to bike or even cross the street. In the last decade, we’ve seen a 44 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities on our roads. In just one decade!

“And, the burdens of poor road conditions are disproportionately shouldered by marginalized communities.

“Low-income families and people of color are frequently left behind—or left out—by our investments in infrastructure, blocking their access to jobs and educational opportunities.

“So, there’s a clear need for modernized transportation infrastructure that is safer and more sustainable, while better ensuring that we treat other people the way we want to be treated. Fortunately, our committee has a roadmap that will enable us to meet these needs and more. 

“Last Congress, as many will recall, our committee unanimously reported a bipartisan reauthorization bill that outlined a historic investment in our nation’s surface transportation programs. Unfortunately, the full Senate never acted on it. But now, we have an opportunity to build on that promise and actually enact a bill that transforms our transportation sector into one that is more innovative, resilient, and safer, while creating good-paying jobs. Lots of them!

“Let me briefly touch on some of the key policy priorities for this reauthorization bill that will help make that vision a reality.

“Auto manufacturers are preparing to greatly expand their lines of electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles, but too often, drivers lack access to the charging or fueling stations they require. America needs to build corridors of charging stations and hydrogen fueling stations across this country. We also have to make it easier for people to safely walk, bike, or take public transit, so driving isn’t the only way to get where they need to go.

“We need to strengthen our infrastructure so that it can withstand the devastating effects of extreme weather and climate change, which we are witnessing with alarming frequency. Last year alone, natural disasters fueled by climate change cost us over $95 billion in economic damages. Smart planning to make our infrastructure more resilient will save American taxpayers billions while helping us avoid rebuilding the same infrastructure projects again and again after severe weather events.

“And, as we work with state and local partners, there must be accountability to ensure that federal funds are invested in well-designed projects that expand equity and lift up our nation as a whole.

“Now, the most challenging part of any discussion on transportation infrastructure—how are we going to pay for it?

“When I was new in the Senate, I once asked Senator Ted Kennedy why so many Republican senators sought him out to cosponsor their major legislation. His response?  ‘I’m always ready to compromise on policy, but I’m never willing to compromise on principle.’

“So what are some principles we ought to be able to agree on?

“Well, for one, much of our transportation infrastructure is in sorry shape. Unfortunately, a lot of it is getting worse, not better. This is not something the federal government should do alone.  This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.

“A second principle that I think most of us can agree on is that things worth having are worth paying for. We can’t just put all of the improvements that are needed on our country’s credit card. 

“And, I’d suggest that a third principle should be that those of us who use our nation’s roads, highways, and bridges have a responsibility to help pay for them.

“Now, we need to develop policies that follow those principles.

“A growing number of people believe that a national Vehicle Miles Traveled approach will eventually fund much of our transportation infrastructure in the not-too-distant future. The reauthorization bill this committee adopted unanimously in the last Congress called for a national VMT pilot for all 50 states. It was a good idea then. I believe it’s an even better idea now. 

“But if VMT turns out to be the future, we’re going to need a bridge—or more likely, several bridges—to get us to that future for the next decade or so. For that, we’ll be looking to the Finance Committee for help in funding the next five-year reauthorization, and the Senate Committees on Banking and Commerce have major roles to play, too.

“Last Congress, EPW led by example—we unanimously approved our bill to improve and expand our surface transportation programs, and we did it 18 months before the last five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill expired. It is imperative, however, that this year, our sister committees join us now to begin the critical work that needs to be done and to help get it across the finish line and signed into law long before this fiscal year ends. 

“Senator Capito and I, along with our staffs, are already getting to work. Last week, we invited all of our Senate colleagues to share their states’ policy priorities with us so we can begin drafting legislation this spring. Our goal is to mark up our bill and report it out of committee no later than Memorial Day.

“The conversation we’re about to begin today in this hearing is critical to that effort. The stakes are high, and a lot of people across this country are counting on us to do our jobs to better ensure that they’ll have the kind of jobs that will enable them to support their own families far into the future.

“Before we hear from our distinguished panel of witnesses, though, let me turn to our Ranking Member, Senator Capito, for her opening remarks.”