WASHINGTON – Fast trains going nowhere fast,outdated bridges and crumbling roads highlighted a Senate hearing Wednesday to discuss investments in American transportation.
The Commerce,Science and Transportation Committee discussed aging public transit networks,the lack of money to fix them and legislation that could help fix the problem.
“We are living off the infrastructure that our parents and grandparents invested in for us,” said Sen. John Kerry,D-Mass. He pointed to technology such as Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express train that cannot operate at maximum speed because of old railroad tracks and bridges.
“This is crazy. This is lunacy. We can do better than this,” he said.
Several senators and witnesses pointed to the country’s $2.2 trillion infrastructure deficit to indicate a need for improving U.S. transportation systems. Stephen J. Bruno,vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen,said the U.S. spends 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product on transportation infrastructure. That falls short of the 5 percent that European countries invest and 9 percent in China.
“We’re the greatest nation on earth,but if we can’t move people,we can’t move goods,we aren’t going anywhere,” Sen. Barbara Boxer,D-Calif.,said.
Kerry said the U.S. would have to spend $250 billion annually for 40 years just to bring roads up to par.
The committee heard testimony from five people who advocate linking public and private sectors to solve the infrastructure issue. The witnesses supported creating a national infrastructure bank to award loans to private groups investing in public transportation projects.
Kerry and the senior Republican on the committee,Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison,R-Texas,co-sponsored the BUILD Act in March. The bill would create a bank to approve and oversee loans to private businesses.
“This is the one way we are going to leverage private dollars to do what unfortunately too many people in Washington don’t want to do,which is invest in the future of our country,” Kerry said.
Democrats and Republicans on the committee agreed the U.S. needs to fund transportation initiatives but differed on how best to do it.
Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller,D-W.Va.,the committee chair,introduced a similar bill in May. Some House members want to cut transportation funding,which he said would be bad for jobs and the economy.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte,R-N.H.,expressed concern about the possibility of bailing out a company that fell upon tough times after being granted a loan.
“I think the people of this country are really tired of bailouts,” she said “How can we be assured that we would not leave the taxpayer on the hook for bad investments?”
Polly Trottenberg,assistant secretary for transportation policy for the Department of Transportation,assured Ayotte that proper oversight would that ensure only strong companies would receive loans. She said the U.S. Treasury would cover the cost of any projects in which the investor defaults.
“It takes us a long time to do due diligence,” Trottenberg said. “We are the public sector,and we want to make sure the taxpayer dollars are protected.”
Sen. Mark Begich,D-Alaska,asked about loans for small projects. He said his state cannot compete with large projects in urban areas that require government assistance. Begich was the mayor of Anchorage from 2003 to 2009.
“I liked driving to work every day and seeing cones on the road because I knew something was happening,” he said.
Trottenberg said the bank would allocate funds for rural and urban projects.
Sen. Claire McCaskill,D-Mo.,clarified that while bank loans would need to be repaid,public funds would be required for any project.
“I don’t want us to get away from the bottom line that folks are going to pay for this one way or another,” she said. “It’s just going to shift how they pay for it in a nontraditional way.”
Reach reporter Michael Stainbrook at [email protected] or 202-326-9868
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