Transportation Leader Peter DeFazio Reflects on IIJA Implementation

DeFazio speaks at the Newsmakers event. (Transport Topics)

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Over his years in office, Rep. Peter DeFazio has become one of the staunchest proponents for increasing federal dollars to repair and modernize the nation’s infrastructure.

As chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, DeFazio was instrumental during the lengthy legislative negotiations that culminated in the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed in November. As he looks toward wrapping up his career in Congress — DeFazio is not seeking reelection this fall — he listed the sweeping legislative package among his achievements.

“We finally got that done,” he said during an appearance on Transport Topics’ Newsmakers program, noting that while the measure did not include everything he wanted — “My bill had more money in it,” he said — the measure’s passage clears the way for billions of dollars in funds for bridge repairs and replacements to begin funneling to states.

The infrastructure law dedicates about $500 billion for highway-centric programs affecting nearly every mobility corridor in the country, and aims to pave the way for the adoption of severe-weather resilience across infrastructure systems.

While the law provides states with flexibility to allocate funds as they fit, DeFazio supports an approach espoused by the Federal Highway Administration that’s commonly called “fix it first.” Outlined in a Dec. 16 memo from the agency, the approach prioritizes repairs to existing infrastructure over new projects.

“It is good policy,” he said, noting that more than 40,000 bridges along the national highway system need substantial repair or replacement. “Fixing it first and preserving what we have makes a hell of a lot of sense, before you’re rushing out and do a new capacity while your bridge is over here falling down,” DeFazio said.

“It’s only guidance,” DeFazio added, “If Texas wants to pave over the whole state and use their money to do that, have at it.”

WATCH NEWSMAKERS: A Career Committed to Improving Infrastructure

Most Republican transportation policymakers have questioned Democrats’ interpretation of the FHWA memo, and prefer to let states make their own determinations on allocating the funds.

DeFazio lamented that the Senate version of the infrastructure law omitted funding for truck parking that was contained in the House version.

“I had $1 billion for grants for truck parking in my version,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Senate blew that off. I don’t know why. This is a huge, huge crisis.”

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During a congressional career that stretches back to the mid-’80s, DeFazio has earned a reputation as an astute policymaker with a command of the legislative process, capable of collaborating or clashing with members of either party. As he wraps up his congressional tenure, the chairman said he remains focused on managing a full schedule of hearings on policy under his committee’s jurisdiction. This includes aviation safety, emergency preparedness and key aspects of the freight supply chain.

Specific to policy measures, he intends to schedule consideration of an update to comprehensive water policy legislation. In seeking to finalize an update of the Water Resources Development Act, DeFazio said the committee will aim to revive projects deemed essential for improving trade and mitigating severe-weather events.

DeFazio also acknowledged that the adoption of new transportation applications is imminent. Regarding automated vehicles, for instance, he observed: “There’s a lot of promise there.” At a time when transportation policy increasingly is viewed and debated through a partisan lens, DeFazio insists that considering a meaningful agenda still serves as a reminder that Congress is capable of advancing big picture policies.

At a trucking workforce event at the White House this month, the president acknowledged lawmakers in attendance who consistently champion infrastructure policies on Capitol Hill, such as the committee chairman. “I want to welcome members of Congress who are here today,” Biden said on April 4. “Good to see you [Sen.] Tammy Baldwin, by the way. And also, Rep. Pete DeFazio.”