Connecting state and local government leaders
The transportation secretary stressed that his department won’t interfere with funding states control. But the top Republican on the Senate public works committee was unconvinced.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg may be trying to reassure states and his Republican critics that he will not try to dictate how state governments use federal infrastructure dollars they receive under set funding formulas, most recently making his case in a speech before state highway officials on Thursday.
But Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she’s not convinced.
“Not really,” Capito, of West Virginia, told reporters on Thursday, when asked if Buttigieg’s remarks before the committee this week eased her fears the department intends to pursue a liberal agenda over the wishes of states.
Capito has been a vocal critic of guidance Stephanie Pollack, the deputy administrator running the Federal Highway Administration, issued in December, saying the agency wants to prioritize improving roads over building new ones—a key goal for environmentalists—in implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The agency said it wants as much of the new money as possible spent on Biden administration goals, including promoting alternatives to motor vehicles and addressing climate change.
Particularly incensing Capito was that she saw the guidance as an attempt to sneak in liberal requirements on the use of infrastructure dollars by states, even though Democrats had agreed to not include them during the bipartisan negotiations that led up to IIJA’s passage.
Capito confronted Buttigieg at a hearing of the public works committee on Wednesday, showing on placards displayed next to her that some of the wording in Pollack’s guidance had been copied “verbatim” from a proposal pushed by House Democrats, but blocked by Republicans, during the negotiations.
“I’m really troubled that a memo that comes from your department had language in it from the House bill that had been rejected, basically verbatim,” Capito told Buttigieg.
Buttigieg denied that the two were the same, though. He noted that, unlike the Democratic proposal, his department’s guidance did not require states to get existing roads in good shape before being able to use infrastructure dollars on expanding them, or building new highways.
The transportation secretary emphasized at the hearing that he intends to respect how states want to spend at least the dollars that are distributed to them by formula. Under federal law, states have a great deal of power to control how these “formula funds” are used.
“It’s the states making those calls” on how that money is spent,” Buttigieg said. “We recognize that and support that.”
But, he said, the administration will consider its priorities in distributing discretionary grants that the Transportation Department awards to state and local applicants.
That didn’t satisfy Capito. “He has a way of talking around things,” she said of Buttigieg’s response.
“We’re going to need to be vigilant,” she said of monitoring the formula funding programs.
Buttigieg, however, again tried to reassure states that they will have flexibility when he spoke on Thursday at a conference of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The group had also pushed back at Pollack’s memo, urging her in a letter to recognize the different transportation needs of states and to not take a “one-size-fits-all” approach towards the money.
“I want you to know I recognize and value the importance of your flexibility,” Buttigieg told the state highway administrators. “We will work with you to ensure you have the right level of flexibility—consistent, of course, with the infrastructure law, and with the core priorities that guided its creation and guided our administration.”
Buttigieg added: “We know there are many different ways to get to the goals that we share.”
Still, he made it clear to the state officials how he hopes they’ll use the money.
“I want to reiterate our ask that we not look at what’s been done in the past to guide what has to be done for the years ahead,” he said, adding that “time is running out” to address climate change.
He emphasized that if states use the infrastructure dollars on projects involving transit, rail, pedestrian safety and maintaining existing roads, it could help to substantially reduce greenhouse gas pollution contributing to global warming.
“Let's meet that crisis together,” he said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
NEXT STORY: How Local Governments Can Repurpose Empty Malls and Parking Lots