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Padilla Highlights Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funding for Wildfire Recovery, Urges Flexibility for Additional Emergency Relief Funds

Government and Politics

September 22, 2022


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) questioned witnesses during a hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee entitled “Putting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Work: The State and Local Perspectives.” During the hearing to examine state and local implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), Padilla questioned Regina Romero, mayor of Tucson, Arizona, and Jim Tymon, Executive Director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Mayor Romero began by thanking Senator Padilla for his efforts to include wildfires in the list of natural disasters covered in the PROTECT program under BIL, which is available to states to make transportation infrastructure more resilient to future weather events and other natural disasters. She underscored the benefit of strategically investing in climate resilient infrastructure in order to avoid costly repairs and long-term disruptions in the wake of natural disasters.

During Padilla’s exchange with Mr. Tymon, they discussed the need for states to have additional time to implement projects using federal Emergency Relief funding given the lengthy process that often takes to recover after a disaster. Earlier this year, Padilla led a bipartisan, bicameral letter to Secretary Pete Buttigieg urging the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to provide flexibility to states like California in using relief funds for transportation repair projects on roads, bridges, trails, and transit systems in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Key Excerpts:

    PADILLA: Colleagues, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law created the PROTECT Program to fund projects that improve the resiliency of our surface transportation infrastructure. I was proud to author language that added wildfires to the list of natural disasters relevant to resiliency improvement grants under the PROTECT Program, made vegetation management practices and transportation rights of way eligible for grant funding, and prioritizes resiliency improvement grants for addressing the vulnerabilities of surface transportation assets with a high risk of failure due to the impacts of wildfires, […] why are the resources that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides central to improving the resiliency of our service transportation infrastructure from wildfires and other natural disasters and climate vulnerabilities?

    ROMERO: […] It will help ensure that our infrastructure can stand up to such events to protect life, health, and property. […] infrastructure failures in Tucson due to climate change can negatively impact national economic and security interests. So the costs of these failures can be significant, so we need to make sure that we’re putting that resiliency on our infrastructure, so that we don’t have to pay billions of dollars to repair. We need to be able to protect beforehand.

    PADILLA: […] Under current regulations, the Federal Highway Administration is allowed to begin clawing back emergency relief funding if projects do not initiate construction by the end of the second fiscal year, following the year in which the disaster occurred. […] To help ensure communities that are impacted by natural disasters have adequate time to utilize federal funds to repair their transportation infrastructure, I led a bipartisan letter earlier this year urging DOT to update emergency relief program regulations to extend the construction start deadline by two years. […] why is this proposed update important to ensuring state Departments of Transportation have practical requirements and a reasonable period of time to carry out their significant and often complex projects to repair transportation assets after a disaster?

    TYMON: We are hearing from several states and we’ve seen this over the last, you know, five to eight years that several states are getting into this situation where the post-disaster recovery is such a complex effort that they need additional time beyond those two years to be able to plan and permit the project in a way that makes them, for the most sense for that specific situation. So, we certainly support your efforts to extend that timeline to four years. We think that that’s the best approach.

Senator Padilla has been a leader in all phases of wildfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression efforts. Last year, Padilla co-sponsored the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act and the Smoke-Ready Communities Act, two bills aimed at battling wildfires, protecting workers, and helping combat the effects of wildfire smoke. Padilla also co-sponsored the Smoke Planning and Research Act and the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act, bills that aimed to ensure that California has the federal resources it needs to protect communities impacted by wildfire smoke.

For more information about the hearing, click here.

A full transcript of the exchange can be found below:

PADILLA

Colleagues, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law created the PROTECT Program to fund projects that improve the resiliency of our surface transportation infrastructure. I was proud to author language that added wildfires to the list of natural disasters relevant to resiliency improvement grants under the PROTECT Program, made vegetation management practices and transportation rights of way eligible for grant funding, and prioritizes resiliency improvement grants for addressing the vulnerabilities of surface transportation assets with a high risk of failure due to the impacts of wildfires, clearly something that’s increasingly common in California as well as in your state, Mayor Romero. So, my question is to you, as the Tucson region faces continued wildfire threats, why are the resources that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides central to improving the resiliency of our service transportation infrastructure from wildfires and other natural disasters and climate vulnerabilities?

ROMERO

Thank you, Senator Padilla. And thank you for adding wildfires to the list of natural disasters in the PROTECT Program. The City of Tucson benefits from having two incredible national parks on both the east side of our city and the west boundary of our city, and we have beautiful mountain ranges surrounding our city. We have seen wildfires in our mountain ranges and they come dangerously close to homes, to residents in our city. At the same time, we must address wildland-urban interface issues including risks of fires, floods, and mudslides and their potential impacts on both private property and public infrastructure. This is why the City of Tucson supports the inclusion of the PROTECT Program in the BIL. It will help ensure that our infrastructure can stand up to such events to protect life, health, and property. Specifically in Tucson, we have, we’re a center for logistics in our region. We’re 60 miles from the Mexican border, we have rail, we have air, we have an interstate that connects our entire state from Tucson. Commercial activity and supply chain shipments move through Tucson every hour, and therefore infrastructure failures in Tucson due to climate change can negatively impact national economic and security interests. So the costs of these failures can be significant, so we need to make sure that we’re putting that resiliency on our infrastructure, so that we don’t have to pay billions of dollars to repair. We need to be able to protect beforehand.

PADILLA

Yeah, and I appreciate you highlighting the supply chain impacts not just local geography. But once you’re impacting supply chain and logistics of goods movement in addition to people’s movement, then we’re all feeling it indirectly. My next question is in the area of flexibility in delivering emergency relief projects. Under current regulations, the Federal Highway Administration is allowed to begin clawing back emergency relief funding if projects do not initiate construction by the end of the second fiscal year, following the year in which the disaster occurred. Now while states can apply for extensions provided in one-year increments for delays caused by the need for extensive environmental evaluation, litigation, or complex right-of-way acquisition, the Federal Highway Administration has previously denied such requests for a number of projects to repair disaster damage. To help ensure communities that are impacted by natural disasters have adequate time to utilize federal funds to repair their transportation infrastructure, I led a bipartisan letter earlier this year urging DOT to update emergency relief program regulations to extend the construction start deadline by two years. Question is that, for Mr. Tymon, why is this proposed update important to ensuring state Departments of Transportation have practical requirements and a reasonable period of time to carry out their significant and often complex projects to repair transportation assets after a disaster?

TYMON

Well, thank you for that question, Senator. We are hearing from several states and we’ve seen this over the last, you know, five to eight years that several states are getting into this situation where the post-disaster recovery is such a complex effort that they need additional time beyond those two years to be able to plan and permit the project in a way that makes them, for the most sense for that specific situation. So, we certainly support your efforts to extend that timeline to four years. We think that that’s the best approach. This two-year approach may have worked well 20, 30 years ago, but given the changing nature of how complex these recovery projects are, given climate change, and some of the other challenges that we’re seeing, I think an extension is absolutely appropriate. I do want to also mention, take a moment to mention, we really do appreciate your support for 3011, the legislation that would give states the flexibility to use ARPA funds for transportation projects and to cover those cost increases associated with inflation. So thank you for that.

PADILLA

Appreciate that acknowledgement. I understand it came up earlier in the hearing and we’re still trying to get it done. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.