America’s transportation systems, which move people and goods from one place to another, are moving somewhat more freely now that the COVID-19 pandemic has loosened its grip.
Yet inflation and government red tape are bogging down efforts to make the best use of a record $1.2 trillion infusion toward the nation’s roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.
Those were the main points from witnesses who told a Congressional committee about obstacles facing the nation’s trucking, railroad, shipping, and construction workers during a Feb. 1 hearing.
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he did not support the gigantic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that Congress passed in 2021.
But about half of the money went toward programs under his committee’s purview. That’s why Graves said the committee must do its best to make sure the money is spent responsibly.
With 65 members, Graves’ committee in the U.S. House of Representatives is the largest in Congress.
The committee supports the nation’s transportation network, which is essential for “economic competitiveness, the movement of people and goods both nationwide and globally, and is integral to Americans’ quality of life,” Graves said in a prepared statement.
Yet the committee mostly remains low-profile. “I consider this to be a work committee, not a show committee,” he said, launching the committee’s first hearing of the 118th Congress.
Confusion and COVID
The barren store shelves of 2020 seem a distant memory now as the pandemic enters its fourth year. But Graves and his committee remain painfully aware of the significance of that time.
“Vulnerabilities within our transportation network were laid bare during the COVID-19 pandemic and were only made worse by stifling regulations,” Graves said.
That trend seems to be continuing, especially in the trucking and construction industries, witnesses said.
For example, the Build America, Buy America Act has created a lot of confusion, said Jeff Firth, who represents the Associated General Contractors of America.
That organization “supports sensible efforts to incentivize the growth of America’s domestic manufacturing,” he said in written testimony. But “because of an executive order, federal agencies must submit waivers for items not made in America,” Firth wrote. The process for getting approval for such a waiver is complicated, time-consuming, and unclear, he said.
It’s so convoluted, Firth said in his verbal testimony, “Am I going to have to hire somebody to really sort this out … what the rule really means?”
In addition, costs of materials have skyrocketed because of inflation, he told the committee.
The trucking industry faces some of the most difficult challenges. Even basic needs among truckers, such as access to restrooms and safe places to park their rigs and get federally-required rest, aren’t being met.
Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) said it’s terrible that truckers spend, on average, 56 minutes a day searching for a parking spot. That, he said, “is clearly a major inefficiency in our supply chain.” So, last year, the transportation committee unanimously passed a bill that would address the issue. But then it stalled, much to his puzzlement.
Chris Spear, CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said he appreciated the committee’s support on that important issue. Now, Spear has asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to tap into discretionary IIJA funding to secure truck parking. Right now, however, many trucks are parked along off-ramps, which creates an unsafe situation for them and for the traveling public, Spear said.
While several Democrats on the committee focused on efforts to push for “green” transportation initiatives, such as electric vehicles, Spear said rushing too quickly in that direction is creating problems.
“Let’s just be realistic … It’ll come; it’ll happen eventually. But this rush that we’re seeing, this timeline is simply unachievable,” he said. “It’s going to be embarrassing because we’re not going to hit it. We’re not going to have the infrastructure in place.”
For example, in Joliet, Illinois, someone was building a truck terminal and decided that they wanted to electrify 30 stalls—a plan that would consume more power “than the entire city of Joliet,” Spear said. “That’s the disconnect.”
In addition, he said, the electric engines require large amounts of mineral resources. Yet President Joe Biden’s administration has cut off some of those resources, said Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.).
A swath of northern Minnesota has been banned from mineral mining for the next 20 years, killing many good-paying jobs and cutting off those mineral supplies, Stauber said. “Where are we going to get these?”
He suggested that political adversaries of the United States “are not going to sell” what they have, and they will “pinch the United States.”
He called upon the trucking industry to help him “push back against this anti-mining stance of this administration.”
However, Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, praised Biden for his leadership in building bridges, improving 70,000 miles of roads and highways, and investing in ports.
“These projects are creating jobs, growing the economy, and strengthening supply chains in rural and urban communities alike,” he said.