Chairman Rockefeller Remarks at Hearing to Review the Department of Transportation FY2012 Budget

March 8, 2011

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—Infrastructure development has played an integral part to our nation’s expansion, economic development and growth. I think it is important to note that the federal government has always been the driving force in the development of our transportation networks – from the first outlays of money to build canals in the early days of the Republic, to creating the conditions for the development of railroads in the 19th century, to the development of the interstate highway and aviation system in the 20th century.

As we begin the 21st century, we stand at a crossroads – our highways and bridges are crumbling around us, congestion plagues our highways, railroads, and airports, and our maritime infrastructure is inadequate. This is not just an inconvenience. It costs us all time and money. It costs our economy jobs. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage globally. It harms our health and environment.

Let’s be clear, if we fail to make substantial improvements in our nation’s infrastructure – highways, aviation, maritime, and rail – we will not create the economic growth necessary for job creation.

I am pleased that the Administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget recognizes the importance of transportation to our future economic well-being. What we’ve seen of the Administration’s surface transportation proposal in the budget is a monumental shift in how we’ve funded our surface transportation system for the past several decades.

The President proposes to spend a record $556 billion on surface transportation programs – almost doubling what we spend in the last six year authorization. I support the Administration’s vision. But, if we’re to entrust the Department of Transportation (DOT) with the investment of such significant funding, we must make sure measures are in place to keep DOT accountable for spending those dollars most efficiently and effectively.

My Federal Surface Transportation Policy and Planning Act of 2011 would require DOT to be strategic in its decision making in how it awards taxpayer dollars to transportation projects.

DOT and the states must be accountable in the way they are spending limited federal resources and must make sure they are used to meet the nation’s most pressing needs—safety, congestion relief, and emissions reductions.

The Administration proposes a very bold vision for building a nationwide passenger rail network. Rail—both passenger and freight—must play a larger role in our transportation network if we want to optimize our transportation system to bolster our economy. Passenger rail systems worldwide rely on some level of federal investment and I believe that we should be spending more federal dollars to make Amtrak a better system and to build a more efficient rail network.

Our freight railroads are becoming more and more profitable, and our federal policy and any federal investment in their systems should be geared toward making the systems more affordable for all users, especially captive shippers.

I also want to highlight the Administration’s commitment to funding the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System. The Senate recently passed the FAA bill and I look forward to working with the Secretary on making sure that we maintain our commitment to building a world class air traffic control system.

I also want to commend the Administration for its emphasis on improving the safety of our nation’s transportation system and building on the previous Administration’s commitment to this issue. 

As the Secretary knows, more than 33,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009. While this number has been steadily declining, it is still unacceptably high. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for individuals aged 3-34 – a truly stunning statistic. We can and must do more to reduce the loss of life on our nation’s roads.

These numbers demonstrate the deep importance of DOT’s safety mission and the need for our nation’s auto safety agency, NHTSA, to have the resources and authorities that it needs.

I am pleased that the budget calls for a more than 20 percent increase in the vehicle safety budget for NHTSA. Hearings last year revealed weaknesses in the agency’s investigative capabilities and the levels of expertise among staff to identify defects and pursue recalls. This increase will better enable the agency to address the next safety crisis.

I believe that important safety initiatives, such as combating drunk driving, reducing distracted driving, and improving hours of service for truck drivers must be given equal – if not more attention – than construction projects. We are losing too many people in the prime of their lives unnecessarily. 

The challenges of rebuilding America are great. If we fail to invest now, it may be too late. Deferring this investment will only make the problems worse and more expensive to address. Most importantly, deferring this investment will cost us lives. 

Again, I want to thank the Secretary for being here today.