September 25, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Maloney Statements from Hearing on Shoreside Infrastructure

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) during today’s hearing titled: “Coast Guard and Port Infrastructure: Built to Last?”

Chair DeFazio:

Mr. Chairman, thank you for scheduling this afternoon’s hearing to assess the Coast Guard’s substantial backlog in deferred maintenance and repair for its infrastructure, and examine policies to ensure that our Nation’s port infrastructure is built to withstand the impacts of climate change.

I want to take a moment first, to acknowledge Dr. Daniel Cox, an esteemed professor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University (OSU) and an expert on coastal engineering and thank him for traveling from Corvallis to testify on today’s second panel. 

OSU for decades has been a leader in ocean and coastal engineering research. I look forward to hearing more from Dr. Cox about OSU’s ongoing initiatives to improve building codes to better withstand river flooding and coastal storm surge.

According to a study released earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office, the Coast Guard has a deferred maintenance and repair backlog of $2.6 billion for its shore side infrastructure, housing, and support facilities. And this total only reflects those needs for which the Coast Guard has affixed a cost estimate – the backlog is likely much, much higher.

It is no reach to conclude that while the Coast Guard’s active duty force may be Semper Paratus, or Always Ready, the vital infrastructure that every service member relies on to perform their demanding work falls far short from meeting that motto. 

Consequently, unless we address the circumstances that have contributed to this backlog, the situation will get much worse, much faster.

If anything was made clear by the recent hurricanes over the past three summers that made landfall in the Southeast United States and the Caribbean, Coast Guard facilities and port infrastructure in general are exposed to increased risks wrought by more powerful, slower moving hurricanes, higher storm surges, torrential rains and more frequent flooding.

To address facilities damaged through these storms, Congress provided the Coast Guard with more than $1.4 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations to rebuild and recover from the devastation, and more importantly, to rebuild to more resilient construction standards.  I expect Admiral Moore to provide an update on this rebuilding.

Clearly, this funding was necessary to get affected Coast Guard units back up and operational.  But just as clear, to me is that this is no way for the Congress or the Coast Guard to address a chronic liability impacting operational readiness and capability.

A long-term strategy must be developed to address the backlog in a systematic and dedicated manner.  Moreover, such a strategy should by guided by new modeling and data management systems, paired with modern advances in coastal science and engineering.

We must completely re-think where we locate Coast Guard units, and how we build the facilities they depend on to meet mission needs. For if we do not, all we will accomplish is to continue to throw good money after bad and end up with a Coast Guard less able to meet the increasing risks of operating along our Nation’s shores.  We can, and ought to, do better.

Chair Maloney:

Good afternoon, and welcome to this afternoon’s hearing to take stock of the condition of the Coast Guard’s shoreside infrastructure, and the risks facing ports and maritime operators in this new era of climate uncertainty.

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Caribbean and Southeast United States in 2017, it was the Coast Guard who worked tirelessly and relentlessly to conduct search and rescue, re-open ports, remove debris, and bring lifesaving relief to hurricane-stricken areas.

At the same time, however, the Coast Guard’s own vulnerable shoreside infrastructure, much of it located directly along the coastline, suffered over $800 million in damages. Offices lost roofs, communications went dark, and piers suffered extreme damage from flying debris. On Puerto Rico, while service members worked to save lives across the island, their own families were forced to relocate from shoreside facilities rendered inoperable and inhospitable. To date, many of the service members working in Sector San Juan still work out of trailers while their base remains under repair.

This circumstance was not solely an issue of extreme storms and freak events. Rather, these events provide a painful snapshot of the very tenuous operating conditions Coast Guard service members work through caused by the Service’s longstanding mismanagement of the maintenance and repair of its shoreside infrastructure and housing.

Few people realize it, but the Coast Guard owns or leases more than 20,000 shore facilities – far and away more real estate than all other properties under the control of agencies within the Department of Homeland Security. Yet, the Service’s outdated, uncoordinated and under-resourced infrastructure management policies and practices have resulted in a $2.6 billion dollar backlog in deferred maintenance, repairs and reconstruction.

That service members have been reported to conduct repair work while off-duty is not only a slight to those members, but a condemnation of the Coast Guard’s collective leadership that would allow such mismanagement to persist at the expense of a workforce already strained and stretched thin. This is simply unacceptable.

Furthermore, the deterioration of the Coast Guard’s shoreside infrastructure will only be exacerbated by climate change. We spend billions on shiny new assets – cutters and aircraft that are critical to execute the Coast Guard’s eleven statutory missions – while their piers, boathouses, barracks, and airstrips slowly crumble away. Semper Paratus, indeed.

You know, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz, has stated that it is his objective to ensure that the Coast Guard is Ready, Relevant and Responsive.  Well, I say we add “Resilient” to that list, too.

As sea levels rise, extreme storms become more powerful, and coastal lands subside or erode away, the Coast Guard needs a rigorous new strategy to identify, design, budget, and build its shore infrastructure.

It is up to this committee and this Congress to provide the Coast Guard with the resources necessary to address its infrastructure backlog, and even more importantly, to build infrastructure that will be more durable and less costly to maintain over its lifetime.

We must additionally take stock of our commercial ports and marine terminal investments in the coastal zone. Each year, more than 1.2 billion metric tons of foreign commerce comes through American ports.

If the United States wants to remain globally competitive and avoid future dislocation of the maritime supply chain at vital ports, such as the Port of New York/New Jersey downriver from my district, we need a rigorous assessment of our critical port infrastructure and its vulnerability to coastal hazards, especially sea level rise. To date, no such assessment exists, and I will be interested to hear our second panel’s thoughts on this idea.

Whether you believe climate change is a hoax, or not, the reality is that government agencies, local communities, maritime stakeholders and others are dealing with the physical, observable impacts caused by climate change that are happening right now. So, let’s talk about how we can adapt to and mitigate these impacts.

This hearing brings together an exemplary panel of experts from coastal engineering, adaptation planning, and risk management to illustrate how agencies like the Coast Guard might better adapt to increasing coastal hazards.

In closing, today’s extreme flood is tomorrow’s daily high tide. To successfully navigate a changing climate will demand strategic design, planning, and investment across the public and private sectors. As a government and economy deeply invested in and dependent upon a global maritime supply chain, how we respond to this challenge today will have a direct bearing on whether we maintain our standard of living, or not. This hearing will help us intelligently assess the vulnerability of the marine transportation system and build back better as we move into an era of unprecedented risk.