EPW Hearing Statement: The Administration’s Framework for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure held the hearing, “The Administration’s Framework for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America” Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:

“Thank you Mr. Chairman, and thank you to our witnesses for coming today. I was disappointed to learn that Administrator Pruitt declined to testify despite EPA’s important role in the development of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, but I am pleased that Secretary Chao and Assistant Secretary James have joined us. As we consider a potential infrastructure bill, it’s helpful to hear from you both, and we were glad to finally receive the administration’s proposal last month. Ultimately, it will largely be up to Congress to identify areas of bipartisan support. I believe areas of agreement do exist, and I look forward to working with the Chairman, our colleagues, and the administration to find them.

“One thing I believe the Chairman and I do agree on is the need for the federal government to be a good partner to states when it comes to investing in infrastructure. As a former governor and state treasurer, I know that we can’t go from an 80 percent federal share to a 20 percent share and somehow expect States that are already facing budget constraints budgets to pick up the slack. That is a deal I imagine states – from Wyoming to Delaware – will be understandably reluctant to take. And it’s one of the many places where I think the administration’s math just doesn’t add up. Last week, economists at University of Pennsylvania modeled the administration’s proposal. They found that, at most, it would spur an additional $30 billion in state, local and private infrastructure spending. That’s a far cry from the $1 trillion that President Trump has been promising since he was on the campaign trail.

“I’m also concerned about the administration’s proposal to give projects incentive awards based almost entirely on the percentage of non-federal money they would raise, regardless of project quality or benefits.

“I’m particularly disappointed by the degree to which the administration is focusing on sweeping rollbacks to our nation’s bedrock environmental protections. I’m committed to delivering projects quickly, but simply gutting environmental protections does not achieve time savings. Doing so could potentially put our communities at risk and can deprive the residents who would be most affected by these projects from making their voices heard. There are many ways to speed projects, without environmental harm, including many that this committee helped to enact into law and that this administration is choosing thus far not to implement.  For instance, we could ensure that permitting agencies have enough funding to complete reviews quickly.  Or we could enhance coordination tools and implement the new authorities that Congress has already passed in 2012, 2015 and 2016. 

“Unfortunately, this administration has done the opposite, proposing to cut permitting agency budgets and to slash funding for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center by two-thirds. Congress, thanks to the efforts of this committee, created the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council in 2015 to coordinate and expedite permitting, but no Executive Director has yet been appointed. Major rulemakings at DOT to implement streamlining provisions in the FAST Act and MAP-21 that I, and many of my Democratic colleagues supported, have not been finalized.

“Frankly, one of the best ways to speed up projects is to provide long-term funding and program certainty and to make grant awards in a timely manner. Time and time again, the research has shown that inadequate funding is the most common factor delaying water and transportation projects. Unfortunately, this administration is holding up grants and delaying funding decisions. DOT released a funding notice for the Infra Grant Program eight months ago, but still has not awarded the $1.5 billion that Congress provided for that program.

“In the first three quarters of 2017, the EPA awarded only a third as much grant funding as the agency did over the same period of time in 2016. The Department of Transportation’s 2019 budget proposed cutting funding for all new transit capital projects, to cut Amtrak funding, and to end the TIGER program. For an administration that is allegedly interested in efficiency and infrastructure, it is frustrating to see so many critical programs being canceled, mismanaged or underfunded. And it is particularly hard to take this administration’s proposal to spend $200 billion on infrastructure seriously when it’s paired with a budget that would cut $240 billion from existing infrastructure programs.

“Instead of funding our nation’s aging water infrastructure, the FY19 President’s Budget request for the Corps of Engineers is down approximately 4 percent below the FY18 request.  For the first time in 20 years, the President’s budget request for construction is below 1 billion dollars. In addition to these budget cuts, the administration authorized no new starts in investigations to fund project studies and no new starts in construction, thus cutting off the pipeline for new Corps of Engineers projects. These cuts are disturbing given that the Corps’ backlog is $96 billion and growing. Worse, it would shift the burden for financing these projects entirely onto local stakeholders.

“Our country depends on water infrastructure investments, in part because such infrastructure helps to expand our GDP. Each federal dollar spent on the Civil Works Program generates $5 in revenues to the U.S. Treasury, and $16 in economic benefits. The current budget proposal ignores the inherent federal role that the Corps plays in stabilizing the economy. These proposals are placing the Corps, and the sectors of our economy it supports, in a death spiral. The administration appears to have ignored these clear benefits in developing their budget proposal, while selectively using a benefit to cost ratio to kill nationally significant projects.

“In closing let me briefly discuss revenues. Secretary Chao, when you testified before us last May, you told us that the administration’s infrastructure task force was looking at two issues: permitting and pay-fors. So I was surprised when I finally saw that the administration’s plan devoted fifteen pages to permitting, while the word ‘pay-for’ failed to appear even once.

“My colleagues have heard me say more than a few times that if things are worth having, they are worth paying for. For decades, we’ve relied in this country on a user fee approach to pay for much of our infrastructure, especially our transportation infrastructure of roads, highways, and bridges. In the years to come, we’ll see an ever-growing number of electric and fuel cell powered vehicles on our roads that do not use gasoline or diesel fuel. In anticipation of that growing trend, three years ago we adopted legislation that called for a multi-state pilot of alternative revenue mechanisms, such as vehicle-miles traveled fees, to fund roads in America. Over the next several years, we should grow the number of states in that pilot and, eventually, run a national pilot of that funding approach.

“Unfortunately, that approach is still some years away. Meanwhile, we have a growing shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund to address. Fortunately, several of us were in the meeting with the President last month when he repeatedly declared his strong support for a 25 cent per gallon increase in the federal gas tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. That could become one important additional source of funds to help us pay for the improvements we need. I believe there are others, as well, that could find bipartisan support. With the administration’s support and the President’s promised leadership, I hope we’ll be able to find agreement for a much needed source of new revenue to fund our critical infrastructure needs, while we also pursue other promising ways to get better results for the transportation dollars we spend.

“I understand that figuring out how we pay for things is always the hard part. But we weren’t sent here to just tackle the easy things. It is our job to have the difficult conversations and make the tough choices in order to achieve better outcomes. I heard yesterday that our colleague and friend, Senator John Cornyn, told some folks in the press that he doesn’t know if the Congress will have time to do something on infrastructure at all this session. I have to say – on an issue that President Trump has been talking about for years now, that resonated with voters when he was a candidate, that has significant bipartisan support here in Congress – we have a real opportunity here to do something meaningful to address our nation’s sizable infrastructure needs, and we shouldn’t squander it. Instead, we should show the kind of leadership this country needs and our citizens expect. In short, we should seize the day and, with apologies to Mark Twain, amaze our friends while confounding our enemies. Again, thank you for your time today. I look forward to hearing from both of you.”