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‘Addicted’ to infrastructure, DeFazio returns to Oregon for good

Says he couldn’t get enough, but he won’t miss flying to Washington

Peter DeFazio leads a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting in September 2022.
Peter DeFazio leads a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting in September 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Peter DeFazio says he is leaving Congress with a self-diagnosed addiction to transportation policy.

Having decided not to seek reelection in 2022, he just completed his 36 years in Congress with a bang — as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at a remarkably productive period for addressing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Throughout his decades on the Hill, passing, certifying and funding transportation projects has always been messy. Still, he can’t get enough.

He recalls that as he took leadership in the committee, a colleague warned him that “the Chair of T&I never sleeps.” He laughed it off, but found the warning to be true.

One of his earliest efforts in Congress was to secure funding for a bridge in Eugene, Ore. He says he corralled federal, state and local officials and made them “sit in my conference room” and told them “you’re not going to leave until we agree on a design.”

The bridge got its funding and was christened the Peter DeFazio Bridge. And, he says, it is “absolutely fabulous” and “beautiful.”

He started his career in Congress as an aide to former Oregon Democratic Rep. James H. Weaver. He went on to become chairman of Oregon’s Lane County Board of Commissioners. He eventually succeeded Weaver in 1987.

Unfinished business

Citing a laundry list of accomplishments, including Democratic wins like the passage of the 2021 infrastructure law and securing the largest expansion of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the lower 48 states, he says he is leaving pleased that he could finish up some long-wanted projects before retreating to Oregon.

One was securing funding for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund — a reserve fed by a tax on cargo unloaded at harbors that pays for harbor maintenance and construction. The cash is subject to the annual appropriations process, but even though the proceeds had tripled since China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, Congress hadn’t spent much of the fund over the past 20 years.

Instead, the money was stored in the fund “in the form of government IOUs while the tax dollars themselves are spent on other things,” think tank Eno Center for Transportation wrote in a 2016 report.

DeFazio made it his mission to use the funds, going as far as voting against the House’s 2016 water resources reauthorization act, which he co-sponsored, after Republicans dropped his language authorizing full use of the fund from the bill.

“Well, that one only took me four years,” he says. It was finally passed as part of the 2020 government spending package. But it was four years of running back and forth between offices for negotiations with Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who retired in 2022 with DeFazio. But when it finally passed, it was a sweet reward.

“That was $10 billion that has been sitting idle in taxes that have been paid for maintaining our harbors or jetties — it was much needed,” he adds.

But there are still a few things he’s left for Democrats in the 118th Congress to finish, like advancing energy transition technology and expanding Amtrak and transit services. It’s undeniable that those will become more challenging as Republicans take the majority.

DeFazio says he generally knows what to expect of the new Congress and is familiar with the presumptive committee chair, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who was the ranking member. He mentioned Graves and other Republicans’ charge against the Biden administration for its implementation of the 2021 infrastructure law — a topic Graves has vowed to scrutinize.

DOT guidance

Opposition to the White House’s handling of the law blossomed out of a December 2021 Federal Highway Administration memo that Republicans say encouraged states to follow a philosophy that Congress discarded in the final iteration of the bill: to focus federal funds on maintaining existing roads before expanding capacity.

The language in the memo went “far beyond the language of the law” and discourages states from choosing projects based on their own priorities, Graves wrote in a September letter to the Department of Transportation. He also accused the agency of trying to “get a second bite at the apple” after the passage of the climate and economy bill of 2022.

DeFazio says he’s not overly concerned with the planned oversight. “They can investigate till hell freezes over, it was only guidance,” he says. “States like Texas will just keep trying to pave over the whole state, and they can still do that.”

He adds he expects the Republican majority will continue to oppose climate initiatives and transit funding, which would slow down DeFazio’s hopes of expanding Amtrak service and cutting carbon emissions. Graves recently co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., that would bar the president from banning federal energy leasing and mineral withdrawals without congressional approval and require annual offshore gas lease sales — a bad omen for Biden and Democrats’ climate goals.

FAA reauthorization is also a big-ticket topic for the committee, and DeFazio says he hopes the panel continues to prioritize consumer safety and comfort over industry concerns, which include speeding up aircraft certification.

DeFazio first took office in 1987 and became ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2015. He eventually became chairman in 2019, although he pursued transportation and infrastructure policy throughout his tenure. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., will replace DeFazio as the Democratic leader of the committee. Rep. Val Hoyle, a Democrat, succeeds DeFazio in representing Oregon’s 4th District.

DeFazio says he’s excited to get back to Oregon and reap the benefits of his work, including spending time in the 390,000 acres of Oregonian wilderness he helped protect. He’s addicted to the work, but said it’s time to focus on his health and well-being — maybe even get back into fly fishing.

And if there’s one thing he won’t miss about Washington, D.C., it’s flying there.

“Well, I didn’t want to add it up, but after retiring I added it up,” he adds. “I found out I spent at least 435 40-hour work weeks commuting to D.C,” he sighs.

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