Congressional Field Hearings and Listening Sessions on Transportation Reauthorization

Last month, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hosted a series of field hearings and listening sessions around the country to gather input on policies for a new long term authorization of federal transportation programs. Among the common themes heard at the events: the need for stability and predictability in federal transportation funding, the desire to explore more public-private partnerships and innovative finance mechanisms amidst a realization that they may not be applicable in all states or for all projects, the impact of environmental review processes on project delivery and the desire for greater flexibility for states and localities in spending federal transportation dollars. Here’s a roundup of some of what was heard at the sessions, based on written testimony and various media and blogger accounts.


February 14, 2011 – Field Hearing – Beckley, West Virginia

The first of the field hearings took place at the Theater at Tamarack in Beckley, West Virginia. Among those invited to testify were West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox and Mike Clowser, Executive Director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), Ranking Democrat, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee

“Small, rural states like West Virginia face special challenges when it comes to funding highway construction. Many of the options available to more urban, populous areas simply do not work in places like West Virginia.”

West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox

“Many West Virginians, particularly in the rural areas, are transit dependent and utilize these services to get to work, the doctor, shopping, and to take care of the necessities of life. The need for continued transportation investment in West Virginia is greater than ever.”  

Mike Clowser, Executive Director, Contractors Association of West Virginia

“The uncertainty that has existed since (the expiration of SAFETEA-LU in) September 2009 has created instability in the design and award of highway construction projects, it has resulted in the unemployment of skilled construction workers, it has curtailed contractors investing in new equipment and it has resulted in a deterioration of West Virginia’s roads and bridges.”

“The West Virginia Legislature passed the West Virginia Public/Private Transportation  Act a few years ago to provide another mechanism to build transportation facilities. We have no planned (public-private partnership) projects in West Virginia. Our rural population, coupled with the fact that private entities must borrow money at higher rates than the federal government and that borrowing costs are an added burden on users of the system, make (public-private partnerships) highly suspect as a viable financing alternative for West Virginia.”

Additional Reading:

AASHTO Journal: “House T&I Committee Begins Field Hearings on Reauthorization.”

Beckley Field Hearing: Mattox Written Testimony

Beckley Field Hearing: Clowser Written Testimony

February 19, 2011 – Field Hearing – Columbus, Ohio

Following the postponement of listening sessions in Pennsylvania and Rochester, New York, the hearings resumed on the 19th at the Ohio State House in Columbus. Among those testifying were Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray, Mark Policinski of the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Council of Governments and Brian Burgett of Kokosing Construction.

Jerry Wray, Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) Director

“We would like to respectfully suggest that the current matching criteria of 20 percent State and 80 percent Federal be re-evaluated and reduced to 10 percent State and 90 percent Federal. This is critical for continuing to maintain and grow our transportation system. Additionally, reducing the match to 90/10 will not only help ODOT, but will arguably help our local partners even more. As you know, the budget situations for local governments are often-times more dire than State budgets and they depend on Federal dollars for many of their projects. Unfortunately, the matching requirements and regulations oftentimes make using Federal dollars not a viable option. Our infrastructure continues to age and we have to maximize our resources to ensure Ohio’s economy, transportation system and citizens do not suffer.”

“We would like to encourage Congress to look at new and innovative ways to pay for our transportation. These new mechanisms should accurately reflect the true use of the system and be fair to all members of our society.”

“The bureaucracy of the Federal project process, especially the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is also a major barrier to the quick and efficient delivery of projects. Much of the delay in the current process results from the ‘logjam effect’ in which too many projects are being pushed through too narrow of a pipeline of USDOT staff. To prevent this logjam, we believe USDOT’s project-level responsibilities should be delegated to State DOTs, and USDOT should shift into an oversight role. SAFETEA-LU enabled this type of delegation to occur and it is our hope that the next Transportation Reauthorization Bill will greatly accelerate delegation to the states. We believe it should not take 10 years for a project to reach the construction phase, but unfortunately due to these lengthy processes, this all too often is the case. We live in an era where time is money, and while still being good stewards of the environment is necessary, we are confident that the red tape could be cut dramatically.”

“Federal regulations within the United States Department of Transportation should also allow and encourage states, like Ohio, the flexibility to leverage their resources and find innovative means for generating revenue.”

“Additionally, another example where this flexibility can help is by changing Federal Highway Administration regulations in a way to allow States the use of private sector revenues to help subsidize rest areas. We see serious potential in allowing advertising inside rest areas as a way to lower our costs and increase value to travelers.”

“Having a strong, robust, sustainable, and less restrictive bill in place will help us confidently and accurately plan for the future. Right now as it stands, it is difficult to know exactly what projects we will be able to deliver. We need to know where our Federal partner will stand not just for this year, but for the future as well. Transportation Reauthorization will enable Ohio to plan with our private sector and our local communities for projects that create and retain jobs.”

Mark Policinski, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Council of Governments, Executive Director

“Because the crisis is so great, this bill must be a game changer.  It must undo much of how we fund transportation in our country.  Anything less will set the stage for American economic decline.”

“We have a revenue problem and we have a spending problem and intertwined is a process that contributes to both.”

“While we need more dollars, what we really need—the real game-changer—is a new streamlined, efficient federal process by which we build things in this country. While it served a valuable service in the past, the current NEPA process is woefully ineffective and shamefully wasteful. One consultant recently told me that her job is to maneuver through the NEPA process and not to build better infrastructure projects. Every person in this industry has their own examples of the Rube Goldberg nature of the monstrosity of a process that wastes time, dollars and, most of all, public will.”

“The federal government does not have the money to finance all the infrastructure needs our country faces. That is why we need to foster public-private partnerships as a method to unlock needed dollars. There are estimates of a trillion private sector dollars ready to be invested in public infrastructure. That is the level of investment this country needs to make, in the next decade, to remain the most powerful economy in the world.”

“Localities need greater flexibility in how we spend federal money.”

“Also, in spending, we have to admit to a very difficult reality—the financial condition of our country forces us to fiercely prioritize what we fund in the next Transportation Bill. The significant lack of funding for all modes forces us to be tenaciously pragmatic in that prioritization. We must recognize that, at this time of immense economic competitiveness among nations, the basic infrastructure of our nation must assume priority.”

Brian Burgett, Kokosing Construction, Inc., President & CEO

“Due to lack of action by Congress and the President in passing the normal 6 year reauthorization of the highway bill, we have not been able to make long-term commitments such as hiring new college graduates and buying new equipment.”

“(Federal Highway Administration) oversight of the state (departments of transportation) needs to be changed so that FHWA sets the standards for design safety for the National Highway System and merely audits the states to see that the system complies.”

“I would propose that the only funding responsibility of the federal government be for the National Highway System and that all other highways become the responsibility of the states they are located in. The logic behind this is that 70 percent of truck traffic is carried on the NHS and interstate commerce is critical to a vibrant national economy. All federal funds would be reduced to one fund for the NHS.”

“(Public-private partnerships) do have a role, but that role is limited to areas with high traffic volumes and few free alternative routes. As a large contractor, I like the idea of (public-private partnerships) because it helps eliminate the mid-size competition and allows me to get a better margin for the work I do. So thank you for making these a consideration.”

“However, when I take off my contractor hat and put on my citizen hat, my views of 3P’s change… It’s the most expensive way to build projects because private entities pay higher rates to borrow money than public entities do… They are not efficient… The cost per mile for tolls on 3P’s is ridiculous… Only a very small portion of projects can even do a 3P.”

“In conclusion (public-private partnerships) are the worst way to finance highway construction and should only be considered when Congress refuses to fund them in a more economical matter. We need to give states the flexibility to spend the dollars that come from the Federal Government on the highway items that are a priority in their state, not what somebody in Washington six years ago decided was going to be important for them… We need stability and predictability in the funding of our highway system. If the Federal Government is not willing to bring this stability and predictability, they should get out of the way and let the states do it.”

Additional Reading:

Columbus Field Hearing: Wray Written Testimony

Columbus Field Hearing: Policinski Written Testimony

Columbus Field Hearing: Burgett Written Testimony

Streetsblog Capitol Hill: “Highways Take Center Stage at Columbus Transpo Field Hearing.”

February 19, 2011 – Listening Session – Indianapolis, IN

February 20, 2011 – Listening Session – West Chicago, IL

The Columbus hearing was followed by a listening session at the Indianapolis City County Building and one a day later at the DuPage Airport in West Chicago, IL.

Peter Skosey, Metropolitan Planning Council, Vice President

“Today, we spend transportation dollars based on arbitrary formulas divided into isolated silos that fragment road, highway, transit, rail, bike, and pedestrian projects.  Instead, we should be making targeted investments that advance coordinated regional goals and a strong national vision that outlines clear priorities for our transportation system.  Precisely because there is a limited supply of federal dollars, we must evaluate potential investments based on their ability to reduce hours spent in traffic, curb emissions, and connect affordable homes and jobs, similar to the federal TIGER program.”

“The next federal transportation bill must maximize the use of existing transit, roads, bridges, and freight rail. In addition to maintaining the infrastructure already in place – job number one  – the  next federal transportation package must reward actions that squeeze more capacity from current transportation facilities.  T4 must encourage innovative financing tools such as congestion pricing, high-occupancy lanes, high-speed rail, and bus rapid transit, to get more from dollars we’ve already spent by increasing capacity, improving safety, reducing emissions, and paving the way for new alternative modes of transportation.  MPC also supports public-private partnerships (PPPs) to finance transportation projects.  Illinois House Bill 1091and Senate Bill 146 would enable state transportation agencies to use PPPs to finance new infrastructure, an option they do not currently have by state law.  In the face of shrinking public resources, PPPs can provide new and reliable revenue sources to finance transportation projects.”

“Strategic policy reforms – such as creating incentives for denser developments and transit-oriented development or for employers to offer employer-assisted housing programs to encourage their employees to buy or rent near transit – can begin to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, thereby curbing congestion and reducing the amount average Americans have to spend on housing and transportation.”

Chicago Tribune

“One of the major themes voiced during the session was the need to reduce the federal bureaucratic red tape that ultimately makes projects more expensive and slower to complete. Several officials said they opted to do without federal aid on relatively smaller projects because the strings attached weren’t worth the hassle.”

“As Transportation Committee chairman, Mica said his goals include reforming and streamlining the transportation funding process; opening up opportunities for creating financing and more private-sector involvement in public projects; and getting more results from the government’s investment.”

The (Arlington Heights, IL) Daily Herald

“Several officials, including Kendall County Board Chairman John Purcell, said federal environmental reviews of construction projects take much too long and end up driving project costs up. Purcell said that federal reviews can take up to three times longer than the engineering on locally funded projects.”

Additional Reading:

Metropolitan Planning Council blog & written testimony: “MPC submits testimony to shape new federal transportation bill.”

Streetsblog Capitol Hill: “Road Interests Crowd Reauthorization Panels in Indiana and Chicago.”

Chicago Tribune: “Local officials talk transportation with D.C. pol.”

Daily Herald: “Federal leaders hear transportation ideas at DuPage meeting.”

Urban Indy Blog: “Summary of surface transport bill listening session from Indy.”

February 21, 2011 – Listening Session – Vancouver, WA

The Vancouver Public Utilities District Building was the site of another listening session on February 21. Among those in attendance was Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.

Streetsblog Capitol Hill

“Other major themes of the meeting were jobs creation, the impact of environmental regulations on project timelines, the pros and cons…of public-private partnerships as a revenue stream, more local control of project decisions, and how to ‘do more with less.’”

“As for what’s likely to be in the new transportation reauthorization, (Congressman Peter) DeFazio (D-OR) said they’re estimating $260 billion (with existing revenues) over six years. That’s not nearly enough, DeFazio said, since a bi-partisan task force estimated we need $460 billion just to maintain the current system.”

“As for how the government should pay for infrastructure, (Congressman Bill) Shuster (R-PA) said they’re not able to raise the gas tax because “the will of the American people is not there to support it.” Instead of charging at the pump to raise revenues, Shuster proposed public-private partnerships (“getting the private sector more involved”) and tolling.”

“(Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula) Hammond went on to say that her agency is smarter these days and that instead of just adding capacity when highways fill up, they are doing, “not more with less, more strategic with less.” “We use every inch of pavement we have.” She also spoke of managing demand through tolls and she gave a big push for transit and the importance of the Amtrak Cascades line.”

“There was a lot of discussion about how EPA regulations and environmental mitigation in general has become ‘extremely onerous’ … on project timelines … Several panelists spoke to how environmental mitigation requirements result in skyrocketing project costs.”

“In the end, this hearing made almost no progress on the largest question facing legislators: revenue. Besides a few quick mentions of tolls (which are just marginally more politically feasible than gas tax increases), public-private partnerships were the only real revenue-generating policy that was discussed; but even Rep. DeFazio described in detail how even those ‘are no magic bullet.’ Without a clear new revenue stream, and with a gas tax increase being a taboo subject, the future still looks very murky.”

The (Clark County, Washington) Columbian

“(House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John) Mica said there will be no (projects) list. The next transportation authorization bill “won’t mention specific projects because we are banning earmarks,” he said. Instead, he said, both House and Senate bills will set broad policy on what kinds of projects are eligible for federal funding. Who will pick the actual projects? That’s still under discussion, Mica said in an interview. It could be the individual states, he said. It could be the Obama administration.”

“(Washington) is using tolling to support major highway and bridge projects, Hammond said, and it’s working with its federal partners to streamline design and environmental permitting at the beginning of projects to avoid costly delays.”

Moving Ahead: The Transportation Choices Coalition Blog

“(Hammond) discussed how they are shifting their focus from new road capacity to maintenance, smart highways, transit, rail, and variable tolling.”

Additional Reading:

Streetsblog Capitol Hill: “Mica Presses for Policy Ideas at Vancouver Hearing on Next Transpo Bill.”

The Columbian: “Bridge partisans told to focus on nation’s transportation woes.”

Moving Ahead: “Congressional Listening Session Yesterday with Congressman Mica and Herrera Beutler.”

February 23, 2011 – Field Hearing – Los Angeles

The field hearing in Los Angeles on February 23 was a rare joint hearing with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The hearing included remarks by the city’s mayor, state transportation officials and others.

Los Angeles Times

“Promoting a signature initiative on his home turf, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged Congress on Wednesday to adopt ‘innovative’ new ways to help finance mass transit projects nationwide—including his own 30/10 plan, which would complete 30 years of L.A.-area projects in a decade.”

“Mica and his colleagues expressed frustration that transportation projects often drag on for years and said they were keen to speed the process. Villaraigosa and others voiced support for streamlining what some called duplicative federal and state environmental reviews, as long as environmental protections were not diminished.”

Streetsblog Los Angeles

“While there was some talk of the need to better move freight through the Southland, much of the conversation was dominated by ways to expedite project delivery of all sorts.  There was no talk of America’s obesity epidemic, rebuilding our cities and communities or even a mention of the words ‘bicycle’ or ‘pedestrian.’  The focus was almost completely on transit and goods movement.”

“Will Kempton, now the Director of the Orange County Transit Authority, outlined their program for project expedition, the “Breaking Down Barriers Initiative …” He outlined four needs to bring projects to fruition more quickly: Extend and expand National Environmental Protection Act delegation to states, allowing those with strong environmental regulation to do their own environmental reviews only once, instead of an additional parallel federal review. Streamline the federal funding process. Overlap activities that can be overlapped. Work with the environmental community to streamline permitting.”

“No panelists offered specific proposals for how to move freight through Los Angeles better. That said, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) noted that 40 percent of goods that arrive through L.A.’s ports end up east of the Mississippi River, so goods movement in Los Angeles should be a national priority … The complete lack of any discussion about urban mobility in the form of creating better communities, creating walkable and bikeable streets and just encouraging options to the automobile was jarring.” 

AASHTO Journal

“(Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara) Boxer said nowhere is the need to improve the movement of goods more critical than in California. "For example, 45% of all containerized cargo destined for the continental U.S. passes through California's ports, and that number is going up," she said. "Traffic through West Coast ports alone is projected to nearly triple by 2035. Freight handled by trucks is expected to double during the same period. These delays have a ripple effect across the nation. The longer it takes to move freight out of California, the longer communities and businesses across the United States must wait to receive those goods."”

Cindy McKim, Director, Caltrans

“Current user fees are not keeping pace with needs or even the authorized levels in current law. The current revenue stream will not provide the revenue or stability needed, especially as new fuels enter the marketplace. This authorization will need to stabilize revenues and prepare the way for the transition to new methods of funding our nation’s transportation infrastructure, such as the flexibility to use creative financing tools. We appreciate Senator Boxer’s work to strengthen and expand the TIFIA program.”

Additional Reading

Los Angeles Times: “Congressional transit leaders meet with Villaraigosa in Westwood.”

Streetsblog Los Angeles: “Goodbye, 30/10. Hello, Fast Forward America.”

AASHTO Journal: “Los Angeles Field Hearing Focuses on TIFIA, Local Financing Needs.”

Los Angeles Field Hearing: McKim Written Testimony

February 24, 2011 – Field Hearing - Oklahoma City, OK

The field hearings wrapped up on the 24th at Oklahoma City Community College. Speakers included Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley.

The Oklahoman

“Fallin said she wants a long-term federal funding strategy “free of unfunded mandates or rigid one-size-fits-all requirements” that often slow road projects in the state. She took issue with the U.S. Department of Labor’s proposal to divide Oklahoma into 66 territories with 36 different job classifications. Currently there are four territories and 22 job classifications. It’s problematic, she said, because if a road crosses a county line, an employee could make a different wage one day than he did the previous day. “We believe we know the needs in our state,” she said. “We’d like the flexibility to decide what our priorities are.””

“Fallin also said states shouldn’t have to acquire a new right of way or undergo a full environmental review, at an added expense, to repave an existing stretch of road.”

“Jerry Hietpas, president of Action Safety Supply Co. in Oklahoma City, said Congress needs to look at implementing user fees for highway usage, because the current gasoline tax doesn’t affect some newer vehicles, such as all-electric or compressed-natural-gas-powered cars.”

“They also discussed the possibility of adding freight lanes to interstates and turning over turnpikes to private companies.”

Gary Ridley, Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation

“Programs that mandate the commitment of dedicated transportation funding to recreational and fringe activities such as bicycle and pedestrian trails, landscaping and historic preservation should be vigorously reviewed. Much of the popularity of such programs can be attributed to the recreational or cultural nature of the facilities and the fact that little or no other significant funding sources exist for such activities. If the Congress believes that community livability projects and other similar programs are important, other funding mechanisms should be identified and the programs should be funded separately from core transportation infrastructure.”

“Oklahoma welcomes the establishment and utilization of thoughtful performance measures that can benchmark our transportation system and provide useful information. The high level performance measures adopted for the transportation system should be broad, simple and, above all else, the measures should be meaningful and understandable. However, we must ensure that we are attentive to the valuable input that states have to offer and that meaningful and easily understood performance measures are crafted. Performance measurement related to the transportation system must be more than another exercise in bureaucracy.”

James Duit, President, Duit Construction Company, Edmond, OK

“Our industry has gone on record in strong support of a nominal motor-fuels tax increase, which would be the first since 1993. Unfortunately, the response is that the topic is a “non-starter.” We submit that it must be part of the long-term solution, and there have been many studies, polls, and reports that support that a nominal increase would not only be accepted by citizens, it would also be barely perceptible amid the day-to-day fluctuations in retail fuel prices.”

Larry Lemon, President, Haskell Lemon Construction

“Timely enactment of a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill with dedicated and predictable levels of funding towards the maintenance and construction of our highway system is the key to restoring confidence in the industry and providing the foundation for our country’s future economy and job creation potential.”

Additional Reading

The Oklahoman: “Oklahoma Gov. Falling testifies at Congressional roads hearing”

Oklahoma City Field Hearing: Ridley Written Testimony

Oklahoma City Field Hearing: Duit Written Testimony

Oklahoma City Field Hearing: Lemon Written Testimony