Broad infrastructure bill may not happen — Chao

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 29, 2019

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao conceded yesterday that Congress may not be able to pass the broad infrastructure package sought by President Trump and leaders of both parties.

Chao told Senate appropriators that lawmakers face a “compressed time frame” for moving the infrastructure package before the August recess.

The secretary also noted Congress must soon pass a five-year reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which is set to expire in 2020.

“I think it’s an issue that we all need to discuss because we have surface reauthorization coming up,” Chao said during a hearing held by the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

“So does it make sense to have two vehicles — an infrastructure bill and a surface reauthorization?” she continued. “Given the compressed time frame, it may very well be that it’s easier for everyone — ourselves as well as the Congress — to have one vehicle, and that should be the surface reauthorization bill.”

Asked about specifics and ways to fund improvements, including raising the gas tax, Chao said “nothing is off the table.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is putting together language for an infrastructure bill. House leadership has reserved floor time for the measure and is considering late spring (E&E Daily, March 7).

Yesterday’s hearing was ostensibly focused on Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget request for the Department of Transportation and related agencies.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, spent the majority of their time pressing Chao on infrastructure as well as the recent fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 Max planes.

In October, a Lion Air flight crashed just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia. Earlier this month, an Ethiopian Airlines flight involving the same 737 Max jet model crashed shortly after leaving Ethiopia’s capital, killing all 157 people on board.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked Chao about requiring additional training for pilots. She also inquired about the nature of the relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing Co., a major lobbying player in Washington.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was considering introducing a bill that would “require key safety equipment be included in basic plane sale costs.”

Returning to infrastructure, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) asked the secretary about the importance of leveraging private investment.

“Pension funds, endowment funds … they’re actually ideal to help in the financing of public infrastructure,” Chao said in response. “But there are 26 states that have some kind of limitations on allowing the private sector to participate in the financing of public infrastructure, and that’s really a shame.”

Subcommittee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called for ensuring the resilience of infrastructure in the face of climate change, echoing a message from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) (E&E Daily, Dec. 7, 2018).

Reed pointed to the massive flooding in the Midwest, which climate scientists say will become a greater concern due to global warming.

He criticized the Trump administration for rescinding the federal flood risk management standard, which was meant to ensure that federally funded infrastructure is built to account for rising seas and stronger storms.

Chao’s response was diplomatic, though she avoided using the words “climate change.”

“I think the resilience of infrastructure is very important to be prepared for natural disasters of any sort,” she said. “And so we need to work to ensure that infrastructure projects are able to meet these unusual circumstances.”