March 07, 2024

Ranking Member Larsen Statement from Hearing on U.S. DOT Discretionary Grant Implementation

Washington, D.C.—The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled, “Department of Transportation Discretionary Grants: Stakeholder Perspectives.”

Video of Larsen’s opening statement is here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chairman Graves, for holding this hearing to explore how competitive grant funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) are providing opportunities and delivering results.

The BIL provides record-breaking funding for critical infrastructure projects.

Over five years, the BIL invests $661 billion in roads, bridges, transit, buses, ferries, airports, ports, and rail. Congress provided 30 percent of this amount—$196 billion—to be distributed through 72 competitive grant programs.

Many of these grant programs were established in the BIL. This investment level and volume of new competitive initiatives far exceeds previous transportation bills.

DOT has risen to the occasion to get this money into the hands of communities by issuing nearly 90 Notices of Funding Opportunity in the two years since enactment of the law. This level of grantmaking is remarkable. 

Compared to formula funds, these grants provide new and expanded opportunities for local and Tribal governments to pursue local priorities and receive grant awards directly.

For example, the BIL Safe Streets and Roads for All program—for which states are not eligible to apply—is widely heralded as a model for assistance to local governments to improve safety.

In the first two rounds of funding, over 1,000 local safety projects received grants—a huge boost to communities with needs that may not rise to the top of state DOT priorities.

Congress also delivered an unprecedented five years of funding certainty for rail in the BIL—a level of commitment not seen since the creation of Amtrak over 50 years ago.

The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded over 238 rail projects under the BIL, including a $2 million grant to the city of Burlington in my district for railroad crossing elimination. FRA is working with communities to develop or enhance 69 intercity passenger rail corridors nationwide.

Yet much of the BIL discretionary rail funding is subject to appropriation—and therefore at the mercy of caps and cuts—because rail does not have a dedicated revenue source.

The cuts to Amtrak in the FY24 House Republicans THUD bill, which stalled consideration of the bill in the House last fall, demonstrate that this Committee will have to remain vigilant to protect investment in rail.

Infrastructure investment means jobs.

Ensuring that infrastructure benefits reach all communities requires a strong working relationship among federal, state, regional, and local government partners.

My state of Washington has a robust process to distribute transportation dollars to all areas, including rural counties and communities in my district. WSDOT leads the process of partnering with local governments and passing through federal transportation dollars with a lot of input from state legislators. Distribution of transportation funding through the state legislature further supports the reach into communities.

As a result, we have seen success in addressing transportation needs in my district and other districts across the state.

This collaboration further supports success in the competitive grant process. Local governments, including Whatcom and Skagit counties, and Tribes, such as the Lummi Nation, in my district in Washington State have successfully applied for and been awarded grants.

In all, Washington’s Second Congressional District has received more than $120 million in competitive grants from the BIL. So, it can happen.

We are only two years through a five-year bill, which means there is more to come—more projects, more jobs, more safety improvements, more pollution reduction, and more communities uplifted.

Congress directed investments in the BIL to address climate change and reduce carbon pollution. We directed investments to improve safety and equity outcomes on our transportation networks. And we put more decision-making power into the hands of local communities, who know their needs best.

DOT’s grant competitions reflect these directives from Congress. DOT’s competitive grant considerations align with goals shared by those who voted for the BIL and are advancing cleaner, safer, and more equitable transportation.

Beyond the benefits of individual projects, BIL resources are building local government capacity to deliver projects. Because in some respects, local governments do not have the capacity to apply for these grants.

DOT is actively helping applicants new to federal transportation grants—which includes many local governments, Tribes, and rural communities—to navigate the competitive process.

The Thriving Communities Program supports disadvantaged and under-resourced communities to advance transportation projects. The program’s “capacity builder” organizations work directly with local communities to build their technical knowledge. The first year of funding, $21 million, supported 64 communities, including 27 in rural areas.

This program to build the bench of project sponsors will transform communities that have not previously accessed federal funds and will deliver jobs, mobility improvements, and economic benefits for years to come, especially in rural areas.

I welcome this opportunity to celebrate the infrastructure benefits to each of our districts and constituents.

I also welcome the opportunity to look at how we can make it better. As a former County Councilmember, I can assure you that I understand the frustration that counties and cities have in accessing federal money, and why sometimes they choose not to.

But we are making progress in this version of funding, through the BIL, to address the potential capacity deficit, so we can build a longer-term bench to increase the number of project sponsors for competitive grants.

There is one area where state legislatures, state DOTs, local governments, city, county, and Tribal governments all agree: there is never enough money from the federal government when it comes to transportation funding. We can all agree on that as we look forward to 2026, when we have to do this all over again, and we should keep that in mind as we are trying to improve the process. 

I look forward to today’s discussion.