U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today urged his colleagues to pass a long-term transportation bill to fund our nation’s highways, roads, and bridges and provide certainty to Americans whose jobs rely on a reauthorization.
Sen. Thune delivered his speech during continued debate on the DRIVE Act, a bipartisan bill designed to modernize the nation’s infrastructure and transportation systems and allow America to better compete in the 21st century. The bill includes several Commerce Committee titles that cover key transportation and regulatory reforms. A section-by-section of the Commerce titles may be found here, and a bill summary may be found here.
The full text of Sen. Thune’s floor speech follows:
Mr. President, this week the Senate is continuing debate on a bipartisan measure to reauthorize transportation programs and fund our nation’s highways, roads, and bridges.
While transportation bills are nothing new here in the Senate, the bill before us today is notable because it’s the first transportation bill in almost a decade to provide more than two years of funding for our nation’s infrastructure needs.
Since 2009, Congress has passed more than 33 short-term funding extensions. That’s an average of approximately five funding extensions each year.
That’s not a good way to manage our nation’s infrastructure, and it wastes an incredible amount of money. Around the country, hundreds of thousands of people – and hundreds of thousands of jobs – depend on the funding contained in transportation bills.
When Congress fails to provide the necessary certainty about the way transportation funding will be allocated, states and local governments are left without the certainty they need to authorize projects or make long-term plans for transportation infrastructure.
And that means that essential construction projects get deferred, necessary repairs may not get made, and jobs that depend on transportation are put in jeopardy.
My home state of South Dakota has been forced to defer important construction projects thanks to the lack of funding certainty.
Mr. President, no individual or business would start building a house or an office building if it could only promise a contractor three months of funding.
In the same way, Congress can’t expect a state to begin construction of a new bridge or highway without the certainty that the project will be fully funded.
The highway bill before us today, the DRIVE Act, reauthorizes transportation programs for six years and provides three years of guaranteed funding.
And all three years of funding have been paid for without raising the gas tax – or adding a dime to the deficit.
This bill will give states and local governments the certainty they need to plan for and commit to key infrastructure projects.
It will also help strengthen our nation’s transportation system by increasing transparency in the allocation of transportation dollars, streamlining the permitting and environmental review processes, and cutting red tape.
Mr. President, over the past few years of Democrat control, the public has grown increasingly skeptical of Congress’ being able to function.
When Republicans took the majority in January, we promised the American people we’d get the Senate working again, and we’ve been delivering on that promise.
This transportation bill is another major legislative achievement and the result of hard work by several committees who put together key provisions to spur important infrastructure investment and safety improvements.
Republicans and Democrats alike got to make their voices heard during this process, and the resulting bill is stronger because of it. As chairman of the Commerce Committee, I had the opportunity to work on the Commerce section of the bill.
Our focus was on enhancing the safety of our nation’s cars, trucks, and railroads, and the bill we produced makes key reforms that will enhance transportation safety around the country. Over the past year, the Commerce Committee has spent a lot of time focused on motor vehicle safety efforts. Last year was a record year for auto problems, with more than 63 million vehicles recalled.
Two of the defects that have spurred recent auto recalls – the faulty General Motors ignition switch and the defective airbag inflators from Takata – are responsible for numerous unnecessary deaths and injuries: at least 8 reported deaths in the case of Takata, and more than 100 deaths in the case of General Motors.
Indications point to the Takata recalls as being among the largest and most complex set of auto-related recalls in our nation’s history, with more than 30 million cars affected.
Given the seriousness of these recalls, when it came time to draft the highway bill one of our priorities at the Commerce Committee was addressing auto safety issues and promoting greater consumer awareness and corporate responsibility.
The Commerce section of the DRIVE Act now triples the civil penalties that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can impose on automakers for a series of related safety violations – from a cap of $35 million to a cap of $105 million – which should provide a much stronger deterrent against auto safety violations like those that occurred in the case of the faulty ignition switches at General Motors.
Our portion of the bill also improves notification methods to ensure that consumers are made aware of recalls.
The new notification requirements include a provision incentivizing dealers to inform consumers of open recalls when they bring in their cars for routine maintenance, as well as a grant program to allow states to notify consumers of recalls when they register their vehicles.
Our committee also adopted a provision from my Democrat colleague, the senior senator from Missouri, which will prevent rental car companies from renting unrepaired cars that have been recalled.
Mr. President, in the wake of the recall over the GM ignition switch defect, the inspector general at the Department of Transportation published a scathing report identifying serious lapses at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – or NHTSA – the government agency responsible for overseeing safety in our nation’s cars and trucks.
The concerns raised included questions about the agency’s ability to properly identify and investigate safety problems – a concern that is further underscored by the circumstances surrounding the Takata recalls.
In addition to targeting violations by automakers, our portion of the highway bill also addresses the lapses at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified in the inspector general’s report.
In its typical fashion, the Obama administration claimed that NHTSA’s problems would be solved by simply throwing more money at the agency, but based on expert testimony from the inspector general, it’s clear that money alone is not going to solve the problem.
We need to ensure that the agency fixes what is broken before we provide a significant increase in funding authorization with taxpayer dollars.
Our bill makes additional funding increases for NHTSA’s vehicle safety efforts contingent on the agency’s implementation of reforms called for by the inspector general, ensuring that this agency will be in a better position to address vehicle safety problems in the future.
I appreciate that NHTSA’s current administrator has pledged to implement all of the recommendations. Mr. President, another big focus of the Commerce Committee this year has been rail safety.
Nearly half of the Commerce section of the DRIVE Act is made up of a bipartisan rail safety bill put together by the Republican junior senator from Mississippi and the Democrat junior senator from New Jersey.
Their work on important passenger rail and Amtrak reforms was almost ready for a committee mark-up at the beginning of May, but after the tragic train derailment in Philadelphia, these two senators opted to delay the mark-up and then added even more safety provisions to the bill they crafted. Their bill, which passed the committee with unanimous support from committee members of both parties, includes provisions to strengthen our nation’s rail infrastructure and smooth the way for the implementation of new safety technologies.
Mr. President, our transportation infrastructure keeps our economy – and our nation – going. Our nation’s farmers depend on our rail system to move their crops to market. Manufacturers rely on our interstate highway system to distribute their goods to stores across the United States.
And all of us depend on our nation’s roads and bridges to get around every day.
For too long, transportation has been the subject of short-term legislation that leaves those responsible for building and maintaining our nation’s transportation system without the certainty and predictability they need to keep our roads and highways thriving.
I’m proud of the bill we have on the floor before us today, and I hope we can pass this legislation and work with the House to develop a final bill that will allow us to fund our nation’s transportation priorities on a long-term basis.