Last year during Infrastructure Week, I penned an op-ed on the state of our infrastructure and the responsibility of Congress to upgrade our transportation systems to the 21st Century. We were just over 100 days into a new administration that had made infrastructure a top campaign issue. The American Infrastructure Report Card for 2017 was a D+. Stakes were high.
This year, stakes remain the same. Our infrastructure is still in dire need of enhancement, and goods and people continue to move over and through our roads, rails, waterways, and skies at all-time highs. The indefinite role of the federal government to facilitate interstate commerce has not diminished, and the president’s $1 trillion-plus pledge still remains. For these reasons, I continue to be optimistic that Congress will get this done.
My top priority is creating an environment to build big things and sustain projects and programs that will last far beyond my lifetime.
The path and vehicle to a $1 trillion-plus investment might not look as we originally pictured, but the topline investment is what matters. For example, Congress made a $20 billion down payment in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 dedicated to transportation over the next two years. We made good on that promise in the omnibus spending bill, dedicating over $10 billion. The investment includes a $1 billion increase in BUILD grants, over $3.5 billion to highways, over $3 billion for rail including $250 million for State of Good Repair, $1.4 billion for water infrastructure, and over $1 billion for discretionary airport grants. These will yield significant improvements across all modes, and we stand poised to double down in fiscal year 2019.
Creating a streamlined regulatory structure to deliver projects faster will leverage these dollars into more roads and deeper harbors. The administration has proposed a One Federal Decision environmental review and approval policy, which would significantly reduce the process from 10 years to two. The framework for this reform was introduced in February, and Congress has an opportunity to make it a reality. This policy does not require revenue and should be considered in upcoming infrastructure legislation.
In conjunction with regulatory streamlining, we must utilize emerging technologies to keep pace with innovation. We have seen companies like Uber transform the landscape, and the federal government must provide enough guidance so industry has the certainty to invest while understanding that over-regulation restricts innovation. Safety is and always will be the top priority in this space, which is why the U.S. Department of Transportation is preparing its third iteration of autonomous vehicle guidance. Ensuring that the manufacturers have the tools they need, and that those tools are up to date and evolving with technology, is essential to a 21st Century system.
Next up for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is the Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA). This important legislation authorizes harbor deepening, lock and dam, water storage, and supply projects. The legislation is an opportunity to make operational reforms for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. This year, we have an opportunity to expand the Water Infrastructure Financing Act (WIFIA) to include reclamation projects that include water storage in the Central Valley of California. The proposal encourages private investment in systems that serve the public interest by providing low-interest, government-backed loans with a long repayment period. The WIFIA program just recently approved its first loan, and the benefits are evident. Expanding to water supply projects is an opportunity that the administration supports and Congress must achieve.
Overall, we have made progress and shown a commitment to infrastructure this year. We still have a number of pending items to accomplish like the Federal Aviation Authorization, the next $10 billion investment for fiscal year 2019, WRDA, and a whole host of policy reforms including the Infrastructure Principles. These items significantly move the ball forward and represent a down payment towards the president’s $1 trillion-plus promise. We must address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the time to act is now.
Denham is a chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure's Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee.