Republicans urge states to ignore infrastructure guidance

By Arianna Skibell | 02/10/2022 06:44 AM EST

Top Republicans are opposing Biden administration efforts to encourage states to prioritize climate resilience, public transit and bike paths over highway expansion projects.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks in a hallway at the Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the Capitol. Francis Chung/E&E News

Top Republican lawmakers are pushing back against the Biden administration’s efforts to encourage states to prioritize climate resilience, public transit and bike paths over highway expansion projects when allocating new infrastructure funding.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) yesterday sent a letter to the nation’s governors urging them to disregard federal guidance on how states should use funding for road and bridge projects.

The senators accused the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of attempting to enact a “wish list of policies” not outlined in the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Congress passed last year with bipartisan support. Both McConnell and Capito voted in favor of the measure.


“These policies, such as discouraging projects that increase highway capacity and prioritizing projects that advance non-motorized transportation options, differ from the provisions negotiated and agreed to in the law,” they wrote in their letter. “The FHWA memorandum is an internal document, has no effect of law, and states should treat it as such.”

Last December, FHWA circulated an internal memo to state offices about how to spend the historic $110 billion in new infrastructure funding.

The Transportation Department arm encouraged states to prioritize repairing existing roads and bridges rather than expanding or building new ones. FHWA also asked states to make existing roads accessible to all modes of transportation, not just driving, while ensuring climate resiliency and equity.

President Biden’s original infrastructure proposal included this fix-it-first approach, but that language did not survive Senate negotiations and the final bill does not require states to repair existing infrastructure conditions before expanding highways or building new ones.

For many transportation policy advocates, that’s a huge problem.

“We want to see states focus on repairing what they have before they build new things, and as they build new things have a plan to maintain it,” said Beth Osborne, who worked at the Transportation Department under President Obama and now serves as director of Transportation for America.

“It’s more important to replace dangerous bridges than to build something new.”

However, McConnell and Capito said the infrastructure law was written to provide states with the flexibility to use funding in “a manner that effectively addresses each state’s unique needs,” and the Republican senators disparaged the administration’s approach as overly prescriptive.

With the fate of Biden’s sprawling climate and spending bill, the “Build Back Better Act,” imperiled, the infrastructure law may be this administration’s best avenue for enacting chunks of its agenda. And while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together to pass the historic infrastructure overhaul, disagreements about how the law should be implemented are just beginning.

Democratic lawmakers are urging the administration to use the law to boost environmental justice, climate resiliency and electric vehicle deployment.

In a letter to Mitch Landrieu, who is helping the White House implement the statute, lawmakers pushed the administration to fulfill Biden’s promise to steer 40 percent of federal funding into communities of color that are shouldering the bruising effects of climate change.

“Historically, these communities have been left behind, and often lack the capacity to pursue federal funding for projects to improve their quality of life,” Reps. Nanette Diaz Barragán of California, Donald McEachin of Virginia and Pramila Jayapal of Washington wrote in the letter. The lawmakers co-chair the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force.

“It’s critical for the administration to maximize the environmental and climate benefits of infrastructure funds that could mitigate or perpetuate the climate crisis and environmental inequities, depending on how they are implemented.”

In another letter sent yesterday, 18 lawmakers urged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to prioritize investments in clean technologies “to significantly improve air quality in underserved communities” when implementing the infrastructure law.

The Transportation Department is expected tomorrow to release its first guidance on how states should implement the EV charging provisions outlined in the infrastructure law. The law allocates up to $7.5 billion to build out a national network of 500,000 EV charging stations.

McConnell and Capito’s rebuke mirrors a letter 16 Republican governors sent earlier this year, asking the administration to “not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments.”

This story also appears in Climatewire.