Thank you Madame Chairman. I want to welcome our distinguished witnesses. I enjoy working with my good friend Jim Oberstar, who is here with us today, and look forward to negotiating out the finer points of the next highway bill with him. When I was first elected to Congress back in 1987, Jim was my Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee on what was then the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, and as an aviator, I was a very active member of the subcommittee and got to know Jim pretty well. We may have even taken a few fact-finding trips together.
I also would like to welcome my colleague, Senator Coleman, who worked tirelessly to secure emergency funding for the collapsed I-35 bridge last year. I was honored to help him in his state’s time of need. He is also one of the primary requesters, along with the Chairman and myself, of a GAO study being released today on how to improve the Highway Bridge program
Also, I want to extend a warm welcome to Gary Ridley, who I believe is the best highway director in the country. I have had many a phone call with Gary at odd hours of the day and night and I can confirm that he is always available and on top of things. In fact, he and I have been in close contact since it became clear that the Highway Trust Fund could go broke as early as this week. This morning, he is representing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. His testimony on how a stand alone bridge bill will negatively influence my state’s capital bridge expenditures while ignoring the vast needs of the rest of highway system is consistent with comments I have received from other states.
Finally, welcome to our new FHWA Administrator, Thomas Madison. I regret that your first appearance before our Committee as Administrator has to be under crisis circumstances, but I understand that you are drinking as fast as you can from the fire hose and I am confident that together we will find a satisfactory solution to the HTF crisis.
I’m a little concerned this hearing is a repeat of a hearing we had September of last year. We have been having about one highway hearing a month as we gear up for reauthorization. This pace does not allow us the opportunity to retread the same territory. In fact, most of the organizations represented at the last bridge hearing are here again today. This hearing is designed to look at both the bridge program as a whole and Congressman Oberstar’s bridge bill, which passed the House and was introduced in the Senate by Senator Klobuchar. Since this is otherwise the same hearing we had last year, I will focus my comments on this proposed legislation.
I believe this is the wrong bill at the wrong time. It adds more red tape to a portion of the highway program that already has so many bureaucratic hurdles that states do not like to use this program to repair their bridges. In fact, some states transfer money from the bridge program to other more flexible programs in order to more effectively fix their bridges.
We are a year from the expiration of SAFETEA. Any major policy changes should be handled in the context of reauthorization. Otherwise they distract us from the overall goal of getting a comprehensive bill done on time. I agree the current bridge program needs revision, but this bill moves in exactly the wrong direction. It further handcuffs the states’ ability to address their greatest bridge priorities.
I’m concerned that in the wake of the Minnesota tragedy and a series of high profile news stories about the poor condition of the nation’s bridges, we are disproportionately focusing on a single aspect of the system. It is certainly true our bridges are in terrible disrepair. As I have noted before, my state of Oklahoma has the distinction of having the greatest number of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges in the country. I agree we must rework the bridge program, but we cannot let the needs of bridges overshadow the overwhelming needs of the rest of our highway system.
Let me emphasize once again that I agree the existing bridge program needs work to make it more useable for states, but with all due respect to my Minnesota colleagues, this bill does not do that and it should be done in the context of the larger reauthorization bill. It is, in my opinion, counterproductive to try and fix our crumbling infrastructure through piecemeal efforts. We need a comprehensive reform which should be done through a reauthorization bill next year.
In closing, I want to comment on the precarious situation we find ourselves in with respect to the solvency of the HTF. Chairman Boxer and I have been working for several months to get a fix to the Senate floor. Despite our best efforts, we have officially bumped up against a hard deadline because I understand that as early as this week the Secretary will begin not fully reimbursing states. On Monday, the Oklahoma Transportation Commissioners decided to delay $80 million of ready to go projects for at least a month with a possible additional $40 million if Congress does not act this week to shore up the shortfall. I suspect that other states have had to make that difficult decision too. Inaction not only means critical projects are not getting done, but construction workers are going to be laid off. We must act this week and I am working to convince my colleagues of the urgency of the situation and would encourage all those listening who understand the importance of a robust transportation infrastructure program to contact their Senators and urge them to support HR 6532, which will restore $8 billion taken from the HTF in 1998. This is not a long term fix but it will give us time to come up with a permanent funding fix.