Mitch Landrieu Defends Repair Over Building New Roads

Mitch Landrieu, White House infrastructure implementation coordinator, speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington earlier this year. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg News)

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President Joe Biden’s point man carrying out the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure law defended the administration’s emphasis on fixing before taking on new expansion as congressional Republicans criticized the policy.

“Our strong political encouragement, and advocacy would be ‘Hey, all of the good economists say that the better bang for the buck is to repair what is broken before you build something new,’ ” infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu said in an interview with Bloomberg June 15. “That’s mostly right in most places in America, but we recognize that every state is different.”

The infrastructure package will send states hundreds of billions of dollars for roads over the next five years, with states having discretion over the bulk of the spending. The Biden administration recently drew pushback from Republicans after putting out guidance that encouraged using the money to fix highways before expanding infrastructure.

Republican lawmakers and governors say they want flexibility to spend the dollars as they see fit, and that the administration’s guidance appears to restrict that. Landrieu played down GOP concerns, pointing to states’ discretion over formula funds under the law. The Transportation Department has stood by its nonbinding recommendations.

The administration won’t tell a governor it knows better, Landrieu said. Rather, it would ask whether the state has considered all factors, such as potential effects on climate.

“You can imagine that the politics is going to get a little rough over time,” Landrieu said. “What we tell the governors is this: ‘Look, let’s not argue, theoretically, let’s look at the specific project and let us figure out together what works.’ ”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also has defended his department’s approach to the highway spending and its guidance.

Landrieu said the administration is trying to find common ground with state governments.

“If we have to have an argument, if there’s an irreconcilable difference, we’ll call it, and if we have the authority to stop it, we will,” Landrieu said. “If we don’t, and we can just use the voice of the bully pulpit, we’ll do that too.”

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