Whitehouse Calls for Passage of Transportation Funding Bill
Speech Coincides with Secretary LaHood’s Tour of Providence Viaduct
Washington, DC – Today, shortly after U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood toured the deteriorated I-95 Viaduct in Providence at the request of U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the Senator took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to call for passage of legislation to reauthorize federal transportation funding. The measure, known as MAP-21, is expected to support over 8,000 jobs in Rhode Island and provide over $500 million in funding to the state during the two years covered by the bill.
The Senator is also working to secure funding for the “Projects of National and Regional Significance” program, which could help provide funding for the Viaduct. Whitehouse helped establish the program through his work on the MAP-21 bill in the Environment and Public Works Committee, but the program still needs funding to be allocated before it can begin awarding grants to qualifying projects.
“I’m glad Secretary LaHood was able to visit Providence and see the Viaduct for himself,” Whitehouse said regarding today’s event. “As we continue looking for ways to secure the funds needed to repair this vital stretch of highway, Secretary LaHood can be a powerful advocate in the Administration.”
The text of Whitehouse’s Senate speech is below, as prepared for delivery.
Thank you, Madam President. I rise today to speak in support of the transportation reauthorization bill currently before us. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, is a critical piece of legislation that will put Americans back to work and lay the foundation for future economic growth.
Madam President, our transportation infrastructure has been at the heart of America’s success, from the transcontinental railroad to the interstate highway. Yet, across the country, the infrastructure that helped build our great economy has been allowed to fall into disrepair.
For evidence of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, one need look no further than my state of Rhode Island. Anyone who drives to work or school in our state has seen the problems: bridges subject to weight restrictions, highways with lane closures, and roads everywhere marked with potholes. Only one third of our highway miles are rated in fair or good condition; the majority are poor or mediocre. According to a recent report, one in five bridges in Rhode Island are structurally deficient – the fourth highest of any state.
Nationwide, the American Society of Civil Engineers rates our transportation systems as near failing. They give our roads and highways a D-minus; our bridges a C; our freight and passenger rail a C-minus; and our transit systems a D. This is not the caliber of report card that you would post on the refrigerator. And it is not one that our great nation should tolerate.
Instead of committing to solve to our infrastructure deficit, however, we continue to fall short. The civil engineers estimate that we would need to dedicate $250 billion each year to bring our transportation systems into a state of good repair. At current levels, the United States only spends 2.4 percent of GDP on infrastructure, compared with European nations at 5 percent and China and India at about 9 percent.
Lest I get too wrapped up in facts and figures, it is worth taking a moment to consider why it’s so important that we invest in transportation. Our economy relies on the ability to get goods and services to where they are needed. An entrepreneur cannot start a business if his employees can’t get to work. A manufacturer cannot stay in business if its products can’t reach its customers. A free market can only operate if supply can get to demand. Our roads and trains and buses are what allow that to happen.
If we don’t make that investment, our global competitors surely will. MAP-21 represents a down-payment that will fund important highway, transit, and rail projects to repair our aging transportation infrastructure and help ensure that America can succeed as it has since we first broke ground on the interstate highway system.
As important as the bill is to our long-term economic position, MAP-21 also provides the immediate benefit to support local construction projects and the quality jobs that go along with them.
It is estimated that MAP-21 will protect 1.8 million existing jobs with the potential to create up to a million more new jobs, which is particularly important given the high level of unemployment in the construction industry. In Rhode Island, the bill would support an estimated 8,100 jobs. At a time when our state unemployment rate hovers stubbornly around 10 percent, those jobs are absolutely crucial.
Given the decrepit state of our transportation systems, it is obvious that we will have to address our infrastructure needs at some point. There is no better time to make that investment than now, with so many workers ready to get to work, so many projects ready to get underway. I know in Rhode Island, there is no shortage of workers or worthwhile transportation projects. In fact, Secretary of Transportation LaHood is in Providence today, and I invited him to tour one of the most significant of these projects: the Providence Viaduct.
The Viaduct is an overland highway bridge that carries Interstate-95 for nearly a quarter mile through downtown Providence. It is part of one of the busiest stretches of the entire I-95 corridor. As you can see in this chart, the Viaduct runs north and south over U.S. Route 6 and State Route 10, the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, commuter and freight rail lines, and the Woonasquatucket River. It provides access to downtown Providence, four universities, Rhode Island Hospital, the convention center and arena, and the Providence Place Mall.
What Secretary LaHood will see on his tour today is a bridge that is quite literally crumbling. The Viaduct was built in 1964 and is showing its age. Its deck is badly deteriorated, steel girders are cracked and don’t meet minimum specifications for brittleness, and our state DOT has installed wood planks to prevent concrete from the failing roadway from falling on cars, pedestrians, and trains that travel below. You can see those planks in this picture, as they pass over the rail corridor. You can also see where a section of concrete has fallen from the support pier, exposing the steel reinforcement, which is now rusting out in the open.
While the Viaduct remains safe for travel today, it is a weak link in the critical I-95 corridor. It is a potential safety hazard for the 160,000 vehicles that travel on it each day, as well as to the cars and trains that pass underneath. The bridge is inspected on a regular basis, just as a precaution. If the Viaduct were to fail or simply require posted weight limits, it would cause substantial regional disruptions to traffic and trade.
Clearly this problem needs to be addressed. The cost of repairing the Providence Viaduct is estimated at roughly $140 million. While this is a reasonable investment to ensure the flow of commerce through the entire northeast, it represents a significant financial burden on a small state like Rhode Island. Fixing the Viaduct would amount to almost two-thirds of the money we’d get from this bill. Rhode Island simply hasn’t got the resources to tackle this important project and still meet our other transportation obligations.
That is why I have filed an amendment to MAP-21 to fund the Projects of National and Regional Significance program. PNRS is a competitive grant program designed to support critical, high-cost transportation projects that are difficult to complete with existing funding sources. This program can help us address those big infrastructure projects, like the Viaduct, that are currently being kicked down the road because state DOTs just can’t scrape enough money together to get them underway.
PNRS is authorized in MAP-21. We got that done in the EPW Committee. Now we need to get that program funded. I am pleased to have the support of Senator Merkley, and Rhode Island’s senior Senator, Jack Reed, on this amendment. I look forward to working with them and other Senators so we can start the important work of rebuilding critical infrastructure projects like the Viaduct that are so critical to our economy.
While I am thanking other senators, I would like to recognize Senator Snowe for her work on another amendment that would grant states limited flexibility to use Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds toward transit systems. This is an important issue for Rhode Island as we begin to scale up our new South County Commuter Rail.
I introduced a version of this amendment in committee and continue to believe that increased flexibility in the CMAQ program will promote state-level transit options that we so critically need. I would like to also thank Senators Boxer and Inhofe for their consideration of our amendment, not to mention for their hard work on this bill overall.
As a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I can testify that the leadership of Chairman Boxer and Ranking Member Inhofe, working together, is what has made the difference for this transportation reauthorization. Through their efforts, we were able to unanimously vote the bill out of committee, making an important statement that investment in our nation’s infrastructure has strong bipartisan support.
Senators Boxer and Inhofe have set an example that I hope will be followed by the handful of people who are obstructing progress on this transportation bill – whether they are my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who are forcing votes on irrelevant amendments or the Republican faction in the House that seems bent on gutting transportation jobs and slashing infrastructure programs. The American people deserve better than that.
With our economy struggling to get back on its feet, with our roads and bridges in desperate need of repair, now is not the time to be debating unpopular and misguided efforts to roll back protections for women’s health. Now is not the time to be debating whether we should undermine rules that protect our environment or fast-track a pipeline project that’s clearly not ready for prime time. We have a bipartisan bill before us that will create jobs and get our economy moving forward. That should be our priority. We should get to the business of legislating.
Madam President, this is a country that does big things. We built highway and rail systems connecting Americans from coast to coast. We built skyscrapers and airplanes and rockets to bring us to the moon and back. Big things are part of our national identity, and just as importantly, they are a vital source of jobs during a trying time.
Let’s keep doing big things. Let’s give people in Rhode Island and across our country a transportation infrastructure they can be proud of, and let’s not cut funding and retreat. We can’t afford to go backwards. We need to refocus on the job of getting America moving ahead, and MAP-21 is a step forward.
I thank the chair and yield the floor.
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