Environment and Public Works Committee
Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee
Hearing on “SAFE-TEA”
Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you and Ranking member Reid for allowing me to sit in on today’s hearing as the Subcommittee reviews the Bush Administration’s TEA-21 reauthorization proposal, “The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003”, known as “SAFETEA.” I look forward to learning more about this proposal from Secretary Mineta and to working with members of the Subcommittee as we proceed with TEA-21 reauthorization over the coming months. In the interest of time, I will keep my comments brief but I would like to touch on a few key areas of interest and concern.
By all accounts, TEA-21 has generally been a great success both in Delaware and across the nation. By strengthening and expanding the basic program structure put forth in ISTEA and then backing these investments up with guaranteed funding, we created a sound framework for record investment in our surface transportation system. I applaud the Administration for recognizing this success and for offering a plan that maintains many of TEA-21’s best features, while placing a new emphasis on the ever-important goal of improving safety. At the heart of TEA-21’s success has been its flexibility and substantial resources. In SAFETEA, I’m pleased to see efforts to expand flexibility and simplify program structure so that our states and communities can further define and direct the transportation solutions that fit their needs.
Yet, the key to making flexibility work is access to adequate resources, so that communities can follow through with these transportation investments. It is this area where SAFETEA is critically lacking, and I am afraid it is a fatal flaw. Without adequate funds, much of the good policy and programmatic structure carried forward from TEA-21 and expanded upon by SAFETEA is reduced in value. As the U.S. DOT has shown in its own reports, the funding levels under SAFETEA are not enough even to maintain our current surface transportation network, let alone begin to address the anticipated needs as freight and passenger traffic continues to grow exponentially.
The Administration’s bill authorizes $247 billion dollars for highway and transit programs for six years. This only represents a 12 percent increase in funding over TEA-21, as opposed to a more than 40% increase in funding from ISTEA to TEA-21. By FY ‘09, SAFETEA funding levels adjusted for inflation will actually be less than current FY ‘03 TEA-21 funding. In my state of Delaware, federal highway funds under SAFETEA start off at the current investment level of $119M and rise to $139M, with an average of a $129 million over the 6 year program, representing only marginal growth taking inflation into consideration. This limited growth will not allow Delaware or the nation to tackle the impending mobility crisis facing our nation.
In the Secretary’s testimony on prior occasions, we have heard of the crippling congestion that plagues our roads and transit service and of the doubling of freight tonnage by 2020. Yet, I fear that SAFETEA’s bolder initiatives aimed at solving these issues could be hamstrung by the overall lack of funding to address all of our transportation needs. These low funding levels are the direct result of the Administration’s opposition to increasing revenue measures such as raising federal fuel taxes. I realize there are political risks associated with raising gas taxs, yet research by several organizations has shown that people overwhelmingly support user fee increases for transportation investment that will fight congestion and improve safety. It is our job, along with the President, to demonstrate the need for more investment and to provide a fair plan to generate it. And, as the Administration pursues economic stimulus to help our faltering economy, I can think of no better way to provide jobs and grow our economy than by investing in our transportation infrastructure.
Beyond questions of overall funding, I have several specific concerns with policy changes put forth in SAFETEA. As a member of the Banking Committee, I have a keen interest in the transit program and I am disappointed to see that SAFETEA does not follow the traditional balance of 4 to 1 between the highway and transit program funding levels. Additionally, SAFETEA proposes eliminating the guaranteed funding/firewall protection of the general fund contributions to the Mass Transit Account of the Trust Fund, which could deliver a major blow to transit funding.
I will also resist the proposed change of the statutory federal share of funding of “New Starts” projects from 80% to 50%. We need to maintain an equal funding level with highway projects, or we risk dissuading communities from making transit investments. Or, if we are going to pursue a policy that significant state demand for investment should dictate a lower federal share, than we should apply that to the highway program as well.
Another key concern of mine is rail and intermodal investment. I applaud the Administration for including several new programs and initiatives in SAFETEA that provide resources to states for intermodal investment, including freight and passenger rail. These initiatives include adding freight rail project eligibility for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program, the new Freight Transportation Gateways program aimed at increasing freight planning and providing formula funds to states for intermodal projects, and a new grant program for intermodal passenger facilities. Yet overall, SAFETEA offers the status quo on rail development by simply extending the current Railroad Rehabilitation and Infrastructure Financing (RRIF) loan program and reauthorizing, with some changes, the Swift Act High Speed Rail planning and research grant programs.
While these existing programs offer modest assistance, if freight and passenger rail services are to remain viable or increase their share of the transportation market - necessary developments if we are to reach our transportation and public policy goals of highway infrastructure preservation, highway and air congestion relief, energy efficiency, environmental stewardship and smart growth development - then the federal government must play an active role in promoting freight and passenger rail infrastructure as it has with all other surface modes.
I believe freight and passenger rail remains one of the most underdeveloped opportunities to augment our national transportation network, giving us maximal capacity for our transportation dollar while benefiting the environment and reducing our dependency on foreign oil. The citizens of Delaware have seen the tremendous benefits that Amtrak and passenger rail brings to our region and the role that intercity passenger rail and high speed rail can play in reducing both air and road congestion. On the freight-side, Norfolk Southern Railway currently carries the equivalent of 1 million trucks annually along the northeast corridor, thereby relieving congestion that would otherwise clog Delaware’s roads. On average, railroads are three or more times more fuel efficient than trucks, needing just 1 gallon of diesel fuel to move 1 ton roughly from Washington to Boston. If just 10 percent of the freight moved by highway were diverted to rail, the nation could save hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel annually, along with relieving congestion and alleviating some of the need for highway expansion.
To capture these benefits and encourage greater use of rail, we must create a true federal partnership with our states so that they may, in partnership with railroads and local communities, provide investment for rail infrastructure development. The essential task for us is to find a sustainable federal funding mechanism to do this and I look forward to working with this Subcommittee and the Administration on this critically important matter.
In closing, I want to thank Secretary Mineta for testifying today and for all of his and the Department’s hard work in preparing SAFETEA. I believe the proposal provides us with a good place to begin our drafting of a final reauthorization bill, having preserved much of what I and many of my colleagues think works in TEA-21. As in other years and with other programs, the key to producing a good bill and getting this process done this year is the level of resources available for the programs.
I believe it will take a combination of approaches to build the financial base that this nation needs to adequately address our transportation needs and I am open to any workable idea. I will also work to ensure that Delaware gets its necessary share of federal funding for the state's important transportation projects. I will actively fight proposals which are either harmful to Delaware or maintain status quo resource levels for the State while greatly increasing the level of resources for other states. As in past reauthorizations, I understand the issue of equity and I will work tirelessly to protect Delaware’s interest.
Finally, Congress has the rare opportunity to consider the federal highway, transit, aviation, and rail programs simultaneously this year. Such an opportunity offers a chance to tackle the numerous transportation challenges facing the state and the nation with innovative and creative solutions. As we seek to increase mobility, relieve congestion, enhance our environment and improve the safety and security of our transportation network, we must embrace a truly multimodal approach that recognizes that a balanced transportation system holds the key to our future.