U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas wants to make sure bureaucrats don’t muddle up the works when it comes to infrastructure funding.
Crawford, representing the 1st Congressional District, said that’s one of his goals as a member of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, which met for the first time Wednesday in the 118th Congress. He is also chairman of the Highway & Transit subcommittee.
The House committee has oversight responsibilities on half of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021. Crawford voted against the legislation — as did the other five members of the Arkansas delegation — but he is focused on making sure the program’s money is spent as efficiently as possible, he said.
Crawford said the IIJA has waste. His example: It provides $200 million over the next five years to improve passageways for migrating fish. Crawford also takes issue with what he calls the Democrats’ “climate agenda” creating “artificial barriers” to needed infrastructure investments.
“We need to be really results-oriented here,” Crawford said. “There is a lot of wasted money in this $1.2 trillion expenditure. Let’s get realistic: Everybody is talking about the state of our infrastructure, and, yes, I think we can probably agree we need to invest, but I think we need to do a better job of making sure what finite resources we have ... go to the highest and best use.”
Witnesses who testified Wednesday complained of requirements that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration added to the IIJA’s Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program, which is designed to allow apprentice commercial drivers between the ages of 18 and 20 to cross state lines. Currently, younger drivers are allowed only to drive within a state, and the thought is that allowing younger drivers to cross state lines could help dent the 80,000 driver shortage the industry is facing.
The FMCSA said in July that companies and drivers would have to have driver-facing cameras in the truck cab in order to participate in the program. Crawford said he supports the SDAP program but considers the camera requirement intrusive and unneeded.
“There is no authority in IIJA to make that requirement,” Crawford said. “Why they even made the requirement is beyond me. That is going to have a real dampening effect on that pilot program.”
Crawford also believes that streamlining the compliance and regulatory process for infrastructure projects would help. It’s a common complaint in the industry: Building a bridge takes as long as getting regulatory clearance to do so.
“The compliance issues that contractors face in the construction of a highway, for example — not only does it prolong the process of permitting and so on, it adds considerable costs to a project,” Crawford said. “We need to streamline that. We need to exercise a high degree of oversight to make sure they’re not getting caught up in a regulatory regime that is cost-prohibitive.”
One of the witnesses at the committee hearing was American Trucking Associations CEO Chris Spear. Spear and his organization were and are supporters of the IIJA, but he is concerned about a Federal Highway Administration memorandum in 2021 that IIJA funding should prioritize maintenance over new construction.
Spear is correct when he said such an agenda wouldn’t increase capacity and reduce congestion. It would make it worse. All fixing potholes on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis would do is make for a smoother crawl while you’re stuck in a traffic jam for half a day.
“Anybody who has driven on I-40 at any time in their life would say we need more capacity on I-40 between Memphis and Little Rock,” Crawford said. “If we don’t prioritize that because we are prioritizing repairing other paved roads, we are doing a disservice to our economy. What we really need for our economy to thrive is expanded capacity.”