Chair DeFazio Lays Out Infrastructure Priorities at the United States Conference of Mayors
Honolulu, HI- Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) addressed an audience of over 1,400 at the United States Conference of Mayors in June. His speech included the Committee’s plans to improve the Nation’s crumbling and overburdened infrastructure, including that of roads, bridges, transit and water systems, and airports.
A full transcript of Chair DeFazio’s speech is below. Video is here.
Good afternoon, thanks for being here.
I just arrived, and I am looking forward to a couple of days here. No one knows better than you the challenges facing our transportation network and our infrastructure. Mayors, I was a county commissioner, you are closer to the people and closer to the problems and you get the phone calls at night about those problems. You are right on the front lines.
That is why I invited your President, Steve Benjamin, to join me at the Democratic Issues Conference in April to talk about the needs to invest in America’s infrastructure. We need to invest more in roads, bridges, transit and water systems, airports, and restore our crumbling and outdated and overburdened infrastructure, at the same time. (applause) Thank you, thank you.
At the same time, we cannot keep investing in the same ways and expecting different results. We need to transform Federal transportation policies to modernize what and how we build. We need intelligent systems that can help mitigate congestion without expanding our roadways. We need to be able to move people and goods more safely and efficiently. Build more resilient facilities with longer life spans, that will stand the changing climate and invest in electrification and carbon reduction.
There is no avoiding the biggest single challenge, which is to secure dedicated, sustainable revenue. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, so-called FAST Act, expires on September 30th, 2020. Now, that might seem quite a ways away, but given the inefficiency of the United States Congress that is right upon us. At that date, we won’t be able to just roll the bill over because that would mean a reduction in spending. The first year would only be $4 billion, although since we need increased spending that is going to hurt a lot. The next year will be a $17 billion reduction so we have to address the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.
You know, this used to be kind of a wonky topic, but now this is something that most Americans get. You know, if you look at the polls, people really want to see us come together across the aisle, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, whatever, and work together to rebuild the infrastructure. The federal government has been shirking its responsibility, while thirty one states have raised their gas taxes and registration fees and others to raise revenue since 2013. In 2018, 70%, and many of you were directly involved in this, 70% of local road and transit ballot measures passed, more than 400 local funding measures and 30 public transit measures. Red states, blue states, purple states, alike.
And not a single, and this is what I keep trying to tell my colleagues in Washington. Not a single elected official that I am aware of, has lost their job because of making the case … and getting the authorization. You know, we did a lot of question and answer and they said, “Well, look, you know you got all these people who want to do this, you know, you got business, industry...” and I said, “Why can’t it happen?” and they kind of had me stumped for a moment and I said, “Well, wait a minute, okay, I can give you an image here. Actually, once I got to go to the South Pole and I was at the South Pole. I was by Shackleton’s hut we had a day off from the work because it was too windy to go out on the icebreaker that day. I was down there with the Coast Guard and there were all these penguins shuffling around, shuffling around and they’re on the edge of this cliff. They had just molted and so therefore, they could go back in the water, but they hadn’t eaten for like seven weeks and they’re really hungry. They want to go in the water, but they’re all standing and they have these things there called leopard seals which are really mean, really fast, they can catch a human on ice. They’re just, they love to eat penguins, that is their favorite diet. So all the penguins are standing there, just back and forth, like, “God, we got to do this, we got to do this, but no, no, what’s going to happen?” So finally, they like push one guy off and then they all look over and then they all go, (makes penguin noises), like he didn’t or she didn’t get eaten so they all dive off. That’s what I’m trying to tell my colleagues in Washington, if we do this together, nobody’s going to get eaten, no one’s going to lose political advantage.
You know, we haven’t adjusted the excise tax since 1993 and so the buying power has dropped 40% with inflation and then of course we have more vehicles on the road traveling more miles, but the vehicles are more efficient so they’re using less fuel. Even though, theoretically, you would think, “Wow, we got a lot more people out there driving a lot more miles we will have more revenue.” No! I mean more actually, revenue has continued to be totally inadequate. We’ve had to put $144 billion from the general fund and other imaginary places, we’re actually borrowing money to put in the trust fund right now since 2008. And over the next 10 years, it’s predicted we’ll be $176 billion, $17 billion a year short. Now, this is just for existing investment, which is totally inadequate, I’ll get to that in a second.
Our investment has decreased 20%. DOT says we have a $836 billion backlog of unmet capital investment for highways and bridges and this is just to bring things up to state of good repair not to build out, you know, to mitigate congestion, build new projects. Same with transit, $100 billion to bring transit rail, up to a state of good repair. We’re, you know, we are underinvesting by $37 billion a year in highways, $10 billion a year in transit, there are 47,000 bridges on the National Highway System that need substantial repair and replacement, let alone the bridges you have in your local communities, that are critical and need the investment.
Now, for a brief time, about a month and a half ago, I was pretty excited we might get this done. We went to the White House, at the request of the President, and we sat there, and he had some opening issues, but we got past those. Then, the President turns to the Speaker and says, “Well, Nancy, what do you think?” She said, “Well, Mr. President, we really need to increase our investment in infrastructure. I am thinking $1 to $1.5 trillion.” Then, the President thinks for just a little, briefly. Then he said, “No, no, no.” And we’re like, “Oh, God.” Then, he says, “$1.9 trillion.” We’re like “Okay.” Then, he says, “No, no wait, two sounds better, $2 trillion.” We’re like, “Okay, we’re on board.” So, he bid himself up and then we got into more specific discussion because there’s some people who want very, very broad definitions of infrastructure and we agreed on transit, highways, bridges, wastewater, drinking water, and broadband. The President was on board for all those things and all those investments and then we got to the point of, and this is where the penguins come in, like okay, how is this going to happen? Senator Schumer is pushing really, “Well, Mr. President, you’ve got to go out and tell people you’re going to raise the gas tax.” And then, the President is like, (makes a face). So, anyway, I finally said, “Look, why don’t we, you know, let’s have another meeting. Everybody put their ideas on a piece of paper, no names on the paper, throw them on the table, we go through them, we pick some, and we all walk out the door together. There’s going to be no disadvantage and we’re going to get something done for the American people. No one can use it politically.”
Unfortunately, when we came back for the next meeting, the President’s Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, who was a founder of the Freedom Caucus, he basically doesn’t believe in government. He certainly does not believe in Federal investment in infrastructure. In fact, he wasn’t at the first meeting, luckily, he was in California, but he managed to get press from California saying he did not support what the President and what we’d agreed to. Then, he came back and started a whole campaign in the White House. He brought in Grover Norquist and everybody else and the next meeting with the President went south. But recently, just this last week, the President was talking again to the Speaker and he expressed interest in doing infrastructure, yet again. I think he really wants to do it. We hopefully will be meeting in July and try and get to some decision on revenues, so you can’t give up on this.
We also, as we write the new 21st century bill, the first 21st century bill, really, in my mind, even though the FAST Act was enacted in this century, but really looking to the future. We’ve got to look at new revenue options for the future. We’re going to have more and more penetration of non-fossil fuel vehicles so we’re going to, you know, I would like to do a national pilot for vehicle miles traveled. My state has done a couple of pilots on this issue and we could move and we could actually move forward pretty quickly in the trucking area with vehicle miles traveled as a substitute because, there’s, you don’t have privacy issues because all the heavy trucks now have electronic recording devices in them. There are individuals with individual vehicles, there’s questions about how are you going to bill, how are you going to collect, and privacy issues that have to be resolved. But we need a 21st century transportation infrastructure bill. You know, and the few things we could do, we want to harness innovation. We want to have smart infrastructure. I don’t think anybody in the room is going to raise their hands if I say this, “How many of you haven’t been frustrated sitting in a traffic light when no one’s coming the other way?” There are systems that actually do real-time adjustment of the lights depending upon traffic flows. We’ve got to look at deploying more and more of those. We got to get more use out of our existing infrastructure, metered lights, vehicles that can read the metering. Those three things together. Actually, they estimate we could save 6-10% of the fuel that’s burned every year by mitigating people idling in traffic and congestion. Also, obviously mitigating air pollution in your cities.
We need, we need to look at a whole range of mobility options. We just had a roundtable on mobility issues and all the new alternatives in mobility. I wouldn’t ride a scooter around here, it’s pretty congested, but I don’t know if they have them. They have, by the way, I keep bothering the scooter people, and they now have invented inflatable helmets that you can put around your necks. Because all these people riding scooters are a disaster waiting to happen. And I’ve ridden, I’ve ridden them a couple of times. We need, we need to prioritize safety investments. A number of cities have adopted Vision Zero, which I believe originated somewhere in Scandinavia, I think Sweden. We get a lot of good jobs out of this, but we also have to focus on job access and training. Los Angeles, is doing, is going to actually have a focused residential high school for people to get skills to go into infrastructure and construction, things that relate to infrastructure.
We have to build it so it lasts longer, it’s more resilient. I was recently up at Oregon State University and they are doing some incredible work. You know, a major source of carbon pollution is cement kilns and there are processes that can use existing kilns that will reduce the pollution 50% and then they can go beyond that. They’ve actually invented a concrete negative--carbon negative concrete, which is –I can’t explain it, but you can get in touch with them and ask about it.
We have the strongest Buy America requirements of any part of the federal government and yet there are still some loopholes and I am going to be plugging those loopholes. Not to be mean to anybody that is here, but anybody who is dealing with CRRC, they are predatory, they are just, they’re owned and run by the Communist government of China. And they want to run our manufacturers and others who are manufacturing here out of business and they do as much value-added overseas as they can. It will just be yet another industry lost, so you should not be contracting for their vehicles.
We also have to look at protecting our natural resources. My Republican colleagues keep saying, “We need more streamlining.” We’ve done streamlining in every major transportation bill, the last three bills. DOT hasn’t even implemented all the streamlining we did, yet. I say, “Well how about we see how well the streamlining we’ve already adopted works before we decide we need more streamlining.” The most frequent cause, according to the experts, of delay of projects is funding, not environmental rules or public review.
As mayors, you certainly know the costs of doing nothing. Your infrastructure doesn’t deteriorate in a straight line, it gets worse quickly, the costs go up very quickly. If you had the money now to do some rehabilitation, you’re going to save a lot of money in the not too distant future. But, again, we have not been great partners on the federal level and I intend to do better on that.
A lot of the country is wearing out. You know, Amtrak just accommodated the committee. They put together a special train with a viewing car and we viewed all of the best engineering work that was done between 1872 and 1930 in the eastern rail corridor. The tunnels under Baltimore were built in 1872, it is raining inside the tunnels and they’re brick. We don’t know how much longer they will last. The Portal Bridge in New Jersey when they open it for ships, when they put it back in place they have to send out a crew including a really big guy with a sledgehammer to knock it back into place. Then, we got a special midnight tour of the Gateway tunnels under the Hudson [River], which were updated in 1930. Unfortunately, they flooded during [Hurricane] Sandy and the concrete has been penetrated by saline, by saltwater and the concrete is falling and every once in a while the 12,000 volt cables short-out and it takes about five days to repair one. So, they need to be replaced. They say, “Well, we can’t afford it.” It cost about $16 billion to $20 billion. Well, if the tunnels fail, it’s going to cost $27 billion a year and it will take four or five years on an emergency basis. So, if you don’t invest now, we’re going to pay one heck of a bigger bill later and I think that you are very aware of that. I don’t want to go into it much longer here, but let me just say, I’ve introduced three bills trying to deal with the fear of the gas tax.
I’ve introduced a bill called a Penny for Progress, which would just index the existing gas and diesel tax, cap the annual increase, no matter what inflation is, at no more than one and a half cents a gallon a year. We could bond $500 billion over the next 10 years to not only fill in the hole in the trust fund, but to substantially increase spending on needed projects and begin to build, bring things up to a state of good repair and build new capacity. I always say to my colleagues, “Raise your hand if you think you’re going to lose your election if gas goes up one and half cents a gallon.” Now, no one ever raises their hand, but I still haven’t been able to move it.
The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, we collect a tiny ad valorem tax on every imported good you buy that came in a container. It is miniscule. It raises a substantial amount of money and, for years, Congress has every year been underspending the trust fund so there’s now a $10 billion balance in the Treasury. And yet, our largest harbors are at about 40% of authorized depths on a daily basis. I have smaller harbors, where the jetties are failing, they’re silting in, and it’s like, “We don’t have the money.” Yeah, we have the money! We just have to spend it and this seems like a no-brainer to me. I have moved it out of committee twice, but Paul Ryan, the former Speaker, had it taken out of the bill twice. You know, even in Washington, DC, you can’t spend money you collect from people on things that you collected it for. But I’ve moved that bill out of committee and I’m going to move that bill through the House this summer, and this Speaker is not going to take it out of my bill.
Then, we have airports, many of you have airports, airport concerns. In Congress, I was the original author of the Passenger Facility Charge on the Democratic side. It was a bipartisan proposal, user fee at airports. We haven’t allowed airports to increase that fee since 2001. The airlines will tell you this is their number one issue, to beat me on this issue. They say, “If I raise the passenger facility charge two or four dollars per boarding for passengers. No one’s ever going to fly again, it’s totally price elastic.” And I said, “Well, what about when we were doing the last FAA bill and you all raised bag fees by five bucks? Oh, well that’s different.” I said, “Yeah, that’s different. That goes in your pocket and you don’t pay any tax, you don’t pay ticket tax on it so it’s a much more gravy than anything else.” I’m going to try and beat them. It will be an interesting struggle, but the airports are doing a much better job of showing their unmet needs this year than they ever have done before. It’s a huge and growing problem.
Finally, wastewater. Now, Congress again is weird. Drinking water is over in [the Committee on] Energy and Commerce, but I’m working with the Chairman over there. We want to do a major initiative on wastewater and drinking water. We haven’t done an SRF wastewater bill since 1987. I’m trying, my committee is very bipartisan, I’m trying to work it out with the Republicans. I want a number that is bigger than they want to go to, but the needs are bigger even than the number I want. I am hoping to bring them around and if you have wastewater needs and you run into any of my Republican colleagues on my committee you might tell them about your wastewater needs.
There’s a huge potential coalition out there for this. I mean we’ve got the trucking association saying tax us, we’ve got the independent truckers saying tax us, you’ve got the US Chamber of Commerce promoting taxes, we’ve got the AFL-CIO promoting taxes. We have a whole host of organizations promoting additional funding for infrastructure investment and if we are absolutely relentless, and we have to be relentless, I’ve been pretty relentless, but I need a little more help here. Relentless, talk to your representatives, talk to your senators, talk to anybody you know associated with the Administration. Push hard! You know, they brought in this guy Grover Norquist. He said, “No, you can’t raise the gas tax. That’s a tax.” Well, there was such a relentless push from the inland waterway users three years ago that Grover redefined the diesel tax as a user fee. Well, guess what? The gas tax and the diesel tax, those are user fees. They’re the most appropriate and today, the only way to pay for these major investments we need. Many of you have done this, we need to do it at the federal level. We need to be a better partner and I’m here to enlist you in that fight. Thanks very much for having me here today, I appreciate it.
Video of Chair DeFazio’s speech can be found here.
Next Article Previous Article