House Infrastructure Committee Hearing Considers the Stimulus Bill

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Holds Hearing on “Infrastructure Investment: Ensuring an Effective Economic Recovery Program

At a hearing this morning, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussed how the stimulus bill would be used most effectively. The hearing, titled “Infrastructure Investment: Ensuring an Effective Economic Recovery Program,” featured as witnesses the Governor of Wisconsin, the New York State Commissioner of Transportation, and the Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Transit Authority. Each witness argued not only that states and municipalities would be able to distribute funds from the federal government quickly and effectively, but also that more money would provide only added benefit. Each stressed the fact that the cost of overall infrastructure needs is far more vast than the total amount of funds proposed in the stimulus bill.oberstar

From the start, members of the committee used their platform to again criticise the existing state of the infrastructure bill, which shortchanges transit and rail in favor of continued high levels of highway funding. Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) was direct: “Unfortunately, some of our proposals came victim to the tax cut, and to the Congressional Budget Office, [which is] very conservative.

Representative Sam Graves (R-MO) spoke clearly against the existing text, comparing it to Mr. Oberstar’s original proposal:

Spending on rail was reduced [in the bill]… and in fact, transportation enhancements… such as… museums… they get more money than the rail programs combined… Total state funding is less than half than… what’s going to TV conversion boxes… We’ve really mixed the mark here… the public is going to be very disappointed here… I hope when we get to conference, we can put some of the chairman’s proposals back in the bill.

But Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), seemed to renege on his apparent interest in fighting against the existing stimulus bill until it included more money for transit, saying “It is not enough, but it is better than nothing.” Seemingly convinced that there is little he can do to alter the text of the infrastructure bill, he then said, “We need to get this through [the bill as written] and then work on a long-term vision for 21st century infrastructure.

In their presentations, each of the three speakers interested in rail and public transportation spoke eloquently in favor of further funding, and each argued that states, cities, and transit authorities would be able to effectively take advantage of the funds within the 90-day deadline.

Jim Doyle, Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor, also speaking in favor of States for Passenger Rail, said the following in his statement:

We share your view, that this recovery act should be designed to get people to work… We have been working every single day to make sure we have the projects ready to go…

If I might address the rail infrastructure issue… states and Wisconsin among them have long believed that passenger rail is the missing link in our national transportation policy… States have been at the center of the passenger rail renaissance… ridership on our Hiawatha service, Milwaukee to Chicago, continues to increase… this is a critical time to recognized the importance of expanding passenger rail services… we can lead the nation to a new era of passenger rail service. Intercity passenger rail service has long-term benefits.” Also comes out in support of Midwest High-Speed Rail Program.

Wisconsin has $137 million in projects that are ready to go in 90 days. The projects will complete a substantial portion of the corridor between Milwaukee and Madison… and it will be part of the development of the Midwest rail system plan.

Mr. Oberstar responded quickly: “Music to my ears.

New York State’s Commissioner of Transportation Astrid Glynn said the following:

During the recent debate, we have repeatedly heard, can we meet the need, is the program sized correctly?… in essence, can we answer the new President’s call to remake America… the answer from New York is an emphatic, yes!…

Governor Paterson has our state ready to implement the federal recovery plan… and those projects are needed, just as the jobs are… we are going to need to more than double our existing funding of transportation… you can rest assured that states… will apply federal aid to real infrastructure needs… All these programs begin with local programs for growth…

To get the most from the recovery, we will need a diverse package, diverse modally, and diverse across levels of government… everyone has to have a part of this process… We would suggest that a program such as this is best managed by a state entity… but the economic recovery plan needs to be flexible…

I hope that you will not overlook the other benefits [of the recovery program]… we can invest more in transit and rail… New York can deliver a significant number of projects… within the timeframes being discussed in Congress, but we hope that this will not be the end of the effort, that this will be the prelude to more long-lasting efforts…

The projects that we are readying are large and small… we can deliver an effective economic recovery program.

Finally, Carole Brown, Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Transit Authority, made her statement:

I need to echo my other panelists to say that we definitely could spend whatever money could come to our system in a 90-day framework. The reason I say that is because our system is so old… We have a $6.8 billion infrastructure need to get to a state of good repair…

We have always looked at this package as not only a jobs bill but also an economic recovery bill… we need money to flow quickly and directly to CTA…

We believe a robust investment in transit is critical… I don’t need to ask you what you would think the inauguration would have been like if Metro hadn’t been there…

There were some interesting questions asked by committee members.

Mr. Oberstar asked how states could play a role in developing the national rail network, and whether there were enough contractors ready to start construction. Mr. Doyle responded in the affirmative. “There is a lot of capacity in the workforce to get people to work.” Mr. Oberstar pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office argued that states will not be able to move the money out as quickly as Congress wants, but Mr. Doyle disagreed, pointing out that the time limit is a “challenge,” but one that states “must” meet.

Representative John Mica (R-FL), ranking member, discussed his 437-day plan, which is named after the number of days it took Minneapolis to rebuild its I-35W bridge, and argued that the quicker projects are built, the cheaper they cost. Ms. Glynn pointed out that the projects being considered have already gone through their approval process and therefore would take very little time to get off the ground. Ms. Brown said “We are always robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

In response to a question from Mr. DeFazio, Ms. Brown said “We are ready to go… the more the better.” She repeated that she was unable to go forward with projects without funding, but if she were given the funding, she would be capable of getting started very quickly. Mr. DeFazio pointed out that operating assistance to transit agencies had been stripped from the package, and Ms. Brown responded that she has to take money from capital funds to pay for operating costs, saying “the operating assistance was something we were very excited about.” Mr. DeFazio seemed to be in favor of using federal funds to pay transit agencies for their operating funds, arguing that no transit agencies in the world operated entirely based on fare revenue.

Representative Thomas Petri (R-WI) pointed out that transportation is a “whole system of production,” needing factories and more. “To be really effective,” he said, the funding would have to be more than a “one-shot thing.” He expressed the common frustration of the committee that the existing stimulus bill doesn’t do enough for financial needs. Mr. Doyle said he would be able to start increased train service between Milwaukee and Chicago immediately, but said that the new service between Milwaukee and Madison, and eventually to the Twin Cities, would produce “tremendous” long-term benefits and act as a “down payment” on future needs.

Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL) asked what assurances could be made to ensure the projects would be funded as Congress demanded, arguing that then Florida Governor Jeb Bush had misused post-9/11 funds. Mr. Doyle responded simply that he would follow Congress’ guidance as much as possible. Ms. Brown also pointed out that the bill had reneged on the President’s promise for future investment in passenger rail. Mr. Doyle said that he would not tell Congress what to do, but also said he could use as much funding as could be given, even if the stimulus size were increased substantially.

Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA) talked about the conflict over whether stimulus funds should go to the states or directly to cities and transit authorities. He asked Mr. Doyle what he thought; the Governor responded by saying that his state had a “fair and equitable” way of dealing with funds. Ms. Brown, on the other hand, said that she wanted the money to get to agencies as quickly as possible. She argued that state bureaucrats, especially in her Illinois, had the potential to slow down the process and cause problems. Ms. Glynn, taking the middle ground, stated that transit funds should – and already often do – go directly to local governments, whereas highway funds make the most sense when they go to states.

Representative Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) argued that the proposed funds for transit were too small. He pointed out that Ms. Brown had said $500 million could be spent in 90 days for the Chicago Transit Authority alone, but that the CTA would only be getting around $250 million from the stimulus bill. Ms. Brown replied that the capital need is $6.8 billion, and suggested that she “needed” that money from Congress, for capacity increases, renovation of tracks, and replacement of rolling stock.

Representative Mazie Hirono (D-HI) said that it would make sense to promote intermodal funding, and Mr. Doyle suggested that his state had not been effective in providing funds for different modes of transportation. He argued that his state would be able to equalize funding and provide for better connections by creating regional transit authorities later this year. Ms. Glynn used the example of the Tappen Zee Bridge to argue that New York State was ready to push forward with an intermodal project, combining transit and roads.

The hearing is to continue later in the day with other witnesses.

Image above: Chairman of House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee James Oberstar (D-MN)

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