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Buttigieg appears before US Senate committee to discuss infrastructure law; Capito questions secretary about memo

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to discuss the implementation of the federal infrastructure law.

The hearing also provided an opportunity for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., to press Buttigieg about a memorandum about projects and using funds.

President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November. Capito led early negotiations between the White House and Senate Republicans, and the senator served as a floor manager during the Senate’s vote on the proposal.

The infrastructure law’s framework is based on measures covering water infrastructure and surface transportation needs. Both proposals originated in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. (File)

“This historic legislation, I think, proves once again that we can come together to develop bills that tackle our nation’s pressing challenges in a manner that reflects input from both of our parties and our diverse stakeholder community,” Capito, the committee’s ranking member, said.

According to Buttigieg, the Department of Transportation has authorized $60 billion to communities and states for transportation. The Federal Highway Administration has announced more than $52 billion for states to repair roads.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States poor marks for its transportation systems in the organization’s 2021 infrastructure report card. The body issued a D for roads, noting projects are underfunded and unaddressed.

“At DOT, we’re working to implement these investments according to the new law with a focus on making our nation’s roads safer; making our transportation systems cleaner, more accessible and more resilient to climate impacts; and enabling all Americans to share in the benefits equitably,” Buttigieg said.

West Virginia will receive $3 billion for federal-aid highway programs. According to the White House, the state has more than 3,200 miles of highways in poor condition.

The Appalachian Development Highway System will get $1.25 billion, including $200 million for completing Corridor H, which will connect Interstate 79 in Weston to Interstate 81 in Virginia.

“I will say in the week that I was home last week,” Capito said, “we were already starting to see the benefits and the excitement from counties and cities and regional areas who are going to be able to make a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

Capito and other senators have raised concerns about a Federal Highway Administration memorandum on projects. The agency in December released a document providing guidance on utilizing funds, noting such efforts can include repairs and maintenance in addition to addressing environmental concerns such as curbing emissions.

Capito led Republican colleagues in a February letter to Buttigieg, in which the senators contended the memorandum does not address Congress’ intent of the new law. The senators additionally argued the language restricts the flexibility of states and discourages expansion.

Capito and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sent a letter to governors in early February stating the memorandum has no legal standing.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (U.S. Department of Transportation)

Capito mentioned Wednesday the memorandum’s language is identical to portions of the House’s infrastructure proposal. Similar language was not part of the law.

“These policies were ultimately rejected and not included in the final legislation sent to the president’s desk,” she said.

Buttigieg recognized the House proposal is unenforceable, but he said the department should try to reach these goals.

“Our understanding as we go forward, implementing the law as written, is that it has no such mandate,” he added. “That’s why the memo says there is no such requirement.”

Buttigieg added officials will not seek additional requirements outside of the law.

“In implementing the law as written, we are to provide the flexibility that is written in the law and, of course, the accountability that’s written in the law for the standards that apply to the use of federal taxpayer dollars. And that is what we will seek to do,” the secretary said.

“I would say there is confusion here,” Capito responded. “There is confusion from the stakeholders, there’s confusion from the state DOTs.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., supported the infrastructure law. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., was one of 13 House Republicans who backed the legislation, drawing ire from former President Donald Trump and conservative colleagues.

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