Amid Congressional Inaction on Highway Policy, USDOT Announces Infrastructure Grants

Larry Seilhamer-Rodríguez
Puerto Rico state Sen. Larry Seilhamer-Rodríguez urged the development of climate-resilient infrastructure for the U.S. commonwealth, which was battered by two hurricanes in 2017. (Senado Puerto Rico via YouTube)

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It’s undeniable that an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives, and pressure to advance legislation to fund the federal government in fiscal 2020 are dominating the congressional agenda and shrinking the conversation about infrastructure policy.

Senate leaders have yet to indicate when they intend to finalize a highway reauthorization measure with provisions related to freight, transit and funding nearly four months after the surface transportation committee advanced a five-year highway bill. In a recent interview with Transport Topics, Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking Democrat on the highway committee, expressed frustration about his Senate colleagues’ inaction on the reauthorization measure. The White House, too, has shown little signs of progress on infrastructure policy, the senator added.



On the House side, the transportation panel’s chairman, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), is expected to unveil his version of the highway reauthorization after the holidays. DeFazio has noted an interest in advancing safety features tied to autonomous technologies, as well as policy on severe-weather resiliency across the transportation grid. Climate-resilient infrastructure slowly has won over supporters in the House and Senate after major storms, floods and wildfires have paralyzed critical freight and commuter corridors nationwide.

Further evidence of the need to rebuild resilient corridors is found in a recent report about Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, which was hit by two hurricanes in 2017. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. commonwealth’s overall infrastructure a grade of D-.

“It is imperative, looking forward, that Puerto Rico and Congress spend the remaining funds on resilient and sustainable infrastructure projects to better protect against future hazards,” Puerto Rico state Sen. Larry Seilhamer-Rodríguez said Nov. 12.


Highway 85 threads through Jackson County, Tennessee. (Ingo Breuer via YouTube)

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation has sought to address the infrastructure needs in rural areas with its inaugural meeting of the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success, or ROUTES, Council. DOT also announced the latest round of winners of its BUILD infrastructure grants. Fifty-five projects from 35 states will receive $900 million in federal grants. As Secretary Elaine Chao put it, “The administration is targeting BUILD transportation grants to repair, rebuild and revitalize significant infrastructure projects across the country.”

The Week Ahead (All times Eastern)

Spotlight Hearing

Nov. 13, 10 a.m.: The House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee hosts a hearing on the status of operations at Amtrak. The hearing is expected to provide a forum for a discussion about a passenger rail project along the Hudson River between North Jersey and Manhattan. The project, referred to as Gateway, would benefit from federal assistance, supporters argue. Opponents in Washington point to state officials to fund the project. Earlier this year, House transportation committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told Transport Topics: “This is some kind of dispute between [President] Donald Trump and [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer, as far as I can tell.”

Nov. 12, 12 p.m.: The Aspen Institute hosts a book discussion on “Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events with author Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University.

Nov. 12, 6 p.m.: New America hosts a book discussion on “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America” with author Christopher Leonard.

Nov. 13, 9:30 a.m.: The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security hosts a meeting of the Transportation and Related Equipment Technical Advisory Committee.

Nov. 13, 10 a.m.: The Senate Commerce Committee considers the nomination of Michael Graham to be a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. The panel also takes up several bills related to marine life, air quality and NASA.

Nov. 13, 10 a.m.: The House Select Intelligence Committee hosts a hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Witnesses include William B. Taylor, charge d’affaires for the State Department in the Ukraine; and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian George Kent.



Nov. 14, 9:30 a.m.: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing on the nomination of Peter Gaynor to be administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Nov. 14, 10 a.m.: The House Budget Committee meets with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.

Nov. 14, 2 p.m.: The House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee hosts a hearing titled, “Commercial and Passenger Vessel Safety: Challenges and Opportunities.”

Nov. 14, 2 p.m.: The House Energy Subcommittee hold a hearing titled, “Water and Geothermal Power: Unearthing the Next Wave of Energy Innovation.”

Nov. 15, 11 a.m.: The House Select Intelligence Committee holds a hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump with former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch.

Nov. 15, 12:30 p.m.: The National Press Club hosts a luncheon with former Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams.

Mood Swings

A robust debate on Capitol Hill about infrastructure funding policy is missing as impeachment and the 2020 elections continue to flood the airwaves.


In Case You Missed It

The folks at Brookings deliver a reminder about the infrastructure network’s pockets of vulnerability related to climate change. (For reference, see: California’s wildfires.)

Who’s New



Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator during the Obama administration, recently was named president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She begins her tenure Jan. 6, the group announced.

“For 50 years, NRDC has stood up for the protection of our environment and the health of people,” McCarthy said Nov. 5. “The climate crisis is the central challenge of our time. The stakes have never been higher, and NRDC has never been stronger. NRDC was built for this moment. It was built for this mission. I am excited to work to expand NRDC’s reach and strengthen our capacity to drive needed change.”



When asked by a reporter Nov. 6 if he shares House Transportation Chairman DeFazio’s concerns about the Secretary of Transportation’s inclination to meet with a certain bloc, Senate EPW ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) responded: “I do.”

Favorite Video

The Veep stops by the Granite State for some politics and eggs.

Favorite Tweet

T&I’s ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) gets political.

The Last Word

Bit-by-bit, project-by-project, mile-after-mile, those who modernize and maintain America’s transportation infrastructure are laying the groundwork for a better future, for all of our people.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials conference Oct. 15


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