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Capito leads GOP letter urging change to road-spending guidance

Republicans say DOT's advice to fix roads before building new ones violates the spirit of the bipartisan agreement and hurts growing states

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., was a key supporter of the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., was a key supporter of the bipartisan infrastructure law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

One of the top Republicans to support the bipartisan infrastructure law has asked Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to have his department rescind or “substantially revise” Federal Highway Administration guidance on the law after GOP complaints that it defies the spirit of the bipartisan agreement.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote in a letter signed by more than half of her fellow Senate Republicans that guidance offered by the Federal Highway Administration on Dec. 16, 2021, “puts forth concerning policies that differ from the provisions” in the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Beyond that, she wrote, “this memorandum calls into question FHWA’s commitment to adhere to congressional intent in an objective and consistent manner.”

The letter, signed by 28 other Republicans, including 18 of the 19 who voted for the bill in August, requests that the agency revise or rescind the memorandum “to demonstrate that the agency intends to implement the [law] as enacted.”

Among the others to head the letter are Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.

The letter is the latest in a series of complaints by Republicans about the spending guidance, which encouraged states to use federal funds to rebuild and maintain existing roads before expanding capacity — a philosophy that was part of the early House version of the bill but didn’t make it into the final bill voted on in the Senate.

The FHWA memo vowed to “implement policies and undertake actions to encourage — and where permitted by law, require — recipients of Federal highway funding to select projects that improve the condition and safety of existing transportation infrastructure … before advancing projects that add new general-purpose travel lanes serving single-occupancy vehicles.”

The ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., called the guidance “a vehicle for the administration’s woke agenda.”

It also spurred Capito and McConnell to send a Feb. 9 letter to governors dismissing the memo’s authority, calling it “an internal document” that “has no effect of law.”

But the letter they sent to Buttigieg on Friday made it clear they were concerned about how the administration would enforce the law.

“The policies outlined in the memorandum reflect a decidedly different approach that appears to restrict the flexibility of states and impose one-size-fits-all solutions to solving communities’ surface transportation challenges,” the letter reads. “Specifically, the memorandum discourages states from moving forward with projects that add highway capacity and instead prioritizes projects that improve existing surface transportation assets.”

The law, they wrote, contains no provisions “that restrict or discourage specific types of projects.”

Separately, a Jan. 19 letter to President Joe Biden from 16 Republican governors urged Biden to allow states maximum flexibility in implementing the law.

“Attempts to disallow the use of funding for general purpose widening projects would be biased against rural states and states with growing populations,” the governors wrote, adding, “excessive consideration of equity, union memberships, or climate as lenses to view suitable projects would be counterproductive.”

“Your administration should not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments and instead should consider economically sound principles that align with state priorities,” they wrote.

A DOT spokesperson, asked about the memo Feb. 2, said it was not equivalent to a mandate but instead was “an internal memo” that lays out “some common sense factors to be considered when capacity expansions are proposed, such as how the state is doing at maintaining its existing roads and bridges and whether less expensive interventions could address the congestion problem.”

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