Legislative Action Interview: Q&A with U.S. House Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure
Before the 2015 holiday recess, Congress came together on long-term transportation funding. Informed Infrastructure reached out to Congressman Bill Shuster, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to get his feedback on this legislation.
In 2013, Congressman Shuster was appointed by leadership to serve as the Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2001, serving the Ninth District of Western Pennsylvania.
I2: What’s the significance of ending the cycle of stopgap spending on transportation?
Shuster: On Dec. 4, 2015, legislation that will positively impact the life of just about every American on a daily basis was signed into law. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, will help improve our nation’s roads, bridges, public transportation systems and passenger rail network. Few of us spend a day without using the surface transportation system to get to our jobs, visit our families, or get the goods and services we depend on.
The FAST Act does this by refocusing surface transportation resources on addressing national priorities, giving more flexibility and decision-making authority to our state and local partners, trimming the federal bureaucracy and red tape, and encouraging innovation.
Republicans and Democrats were able to work together, gather input from outside of Washington and from stakeholders, and find common ground to get something done for our transportation system.
I2: Your home state of Pennsylvania has an impressive initiative to rapidly replace structurally deficient bridges through public-private partnerships. Are you a fan of that approach? How might an approach such as this work for the nation?
Shuster: As Chairman, I have championed innovative solutions, such as public-private partnerships, to address our transportation needs. What Pennsylvania has done to fix its bridges is just one of many great examples of states and local governments around the nation thinking “outside of the box” to address transportation needs. The FAST Act builds on those great ideas by including policies we hope will foster more of that type of thinking in the years to come, and enable states and local governments to share their solutions with others.
I2: We recently spoke to Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School about her book, Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead. Her contention is that our poor infrastructure comes down to a lack of leadership. Would you like to see more leadership from the engineering firms and associations such as the ASCE?
Shuster: There’s no question that ensuring we make the necessary investments in our critical infrastructure is a challenge, and it takes leadership at every level—at federal, state and local levels of government as well as throughout the stakeholder community and private sector. One issue that continues to be particularly challenging, but that we must address, is how to find a feasible way to fund our increasing infrastructure needs in a sustainable fashion.
The FAST Act successfully provides significant investments and funding stability for the next five years, but we all have to continue working together to identify a funding solution beyond that. My state of Pennsylvania was able to do that recently by bringing together stakeholders and lawmakers. To do this at the national level, engineers need to continue to be important partners in this effort.
I2: You’ve been a strong advocate for a long-term highway bill. Now that it has passed, how important is a long-term funding bill to the health of our nation’s infrastructure and as an extension, the health of our economy?
Shuster: It’s essential. When Congress did not provide a long-term bill, it severely handicapped the ability of states and local governments to plan major, complex infrastructure improvements. The FAST Act, and long-term reauthorizations in general, enables those improvements to move forward, which ensures that we all can get where we’re going more safely while spending less time in traffic; that raw materials and products can get to their destinations more efficiently; that the cost of goods and services are not needlessly inflated by poor infrastructure and freight bottlenecks; and that our businesses can be as competitive as possible.
I2: Other countries look at our ASCE report card with some interest, first with some envy of our ability to assess and communicate the condition and performance of our infrastructure, but also for the unenviable way we’re largely stuck with very poor grades. How important is this assessment function for positive change?
Shuster: I’m certainly no expert on accurately measuring the condition of the various aspects of our nation’s infrastructure, but I trust what I see, and what my state and local officials report, and what my constituents tell me: our roads, bridges, rail systems, aviation and water infrastructure requires investment and must be improved. The ASCE Report Card brings attention to the condition of our infrastructure and the need to do something about it. And if we’re talking about it, the chances for positive action are better.