On March 1, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a hearing entitled, “The Administration’s Framework for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America.” The EPW committee was joined by Elaine Chao, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Honorable R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works.
Senator John Barrasso (R–WY), chairman of the EPW committee, opened the meeting noting the committee has “historically taken the bipartisan lead on infrastructure issues in the Senate.” He also criticized the lack of prioritization for infrastructure systems, unsufficient funding and burdensome federal regulations as the cause for slow and inefficient projects.
Barrasso was supportive of President Trump’s infrastructure plan and proposed changes. To make significant investment in infrastructure, “Part of this can be accomplished by cutting Washington’s red tape,” he said. Barrasso also championed the President’s plan for its focus on rural communities and more federal money for those that need it.
The EPW committee is making good bipartisan progress toward more water infrastructure legislation later this year, Barrasso said.
EPW Committee Ranking Member Tom Carper (D – DE) outlined the President’s infrastructure plan with less praise and more criticism. He expressed concern about states’ ability to cover higher project costs, in lieu of federal funding. “It hard to make up that slack,” Carper said. “It’s one of a number of places where I think the math of the administration’s plan does not add up.”
Economists in Philadelphia from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the proposal and concluded that it would only general an additional $30 billion in investment. “That is a far cry from what the administration is promising,” Carper said.
He also raised concerns about efforts to streamline the environmental permitting process, “by the degree to which the administration is focusing on sweeping rollbacks to our nation’s bedrock environmental protectionism” Carper said. He said that efforts such as ensuring adequate funding for permitting agencies and implementing new tools. The administration instead, he said, proposes cuts to permitting agencies and infrastructure programs, such as the TIGER program.
“It is particularly hard to take this administration’s proposal to spend $200 billion on infrastructure seriously when that proposal is paired with a budget that would cut $240 billion from existing infrastructure programs,” Carper said.
Casper also concluded that the Congressional session had plenty of time to address infrastructure issues.
In his opening statement, Secretary James was hopeful about the ability of the administration’s infrastructure plan to “remove barriers and provide new authorities to expedite the delivery of infrastructure project,” he said. For permitting specifically, James referenced work the Corps is currently doing to streamline the Section 404 and Section 408 permit programs and reduce redundancy. The goal, James said, is to reduce environmental review timelines to two years.
In the question and answer period, Sen. Moran (R–KS) questioned Sec. James about the three-phase process for Corps project (feasibility study; pre-construction, engineering and design (PED); and construction). He said it used to be two phases and asked if the first two phases could be combined into one, so monies remained for construction.
“To answer your question, those are three completely different things. We are looking at streamlining,” James said. James insisted that three phases were necessary but additional steps could be taken to streamline all phases.
Sen. Cardin (D–MD) wasted no time in addressing an important project for his state, Popular Island, and one that he called “the first of its kind that would be a win-win situation for our navigation and our environment.” He was critical of the administration’s proposed FY19 budget, which he said reclassified the project to compete solely as a navigation project, rather than also as an environmental restoration project. The newest budget allocated $21 million, which Cardin called “an inadequate amount of money,” and he hopes to address that during the appropriation process.
James wanted to confer with his staff before giving a definite answer on Popular Island, but he offered a general opinion about dredging and sediment placement. In areas where dredged material placement is rejected for environmental reasons, the increased costs prevent many dredging projects. It is partly an issue with other permitting agencies, but James committed to working with Congress and other agencies on the issue.
Sen. Whitehouse (D–RI) said of the FY19 budget, which allocated $1.481 billion for its flood and coastal storm damage reduction program, only $40 million of that is marked for coastal programs. The remaining $1.44 billion is for inland projects. In light of climate change and sea level rise, Sen. Whitehouse said this 37 to 1 ratio “is really hard for me to understand.”
Sec. James had some discrepancies about the 37 to 1 ratio, but he did acknowledge a severe need along the inland waterways. “That tells me there is just a lot more inland projects that require flood damage assistance than coastal, “ James said.
Earlier in the hearing Sen. Carper raised questions about whether Congressional leadership had signaled that time had already run out for infrastructure legislature, or that it would not have the time needed during the current session.
Sen. Sullivan (R–AK) reiterated surprise that Republican leadership in the Senate had indicated that there might not be time for infrastructure. “We should make more time. If we do not have time, let us work weekends,” Sullivan said.