Rep. Rick Larsen: The future of U.S. infrastructure policy

Highway funding, the impacts of climate change on the Arctic and the future of air traffic control are just a few of the issues on the mind of Aviation Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Rick Larsen.

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Among the priorities on the increasingly lengthy Congressional to-do list is long-term funding for American infrastructure investment.

In the latest installment of the budget battles gripping Washington, Congress recently passed a short-term fix for the federal Highway Trust Fund. The trust fund serves as the main source of federal dollars for state and local transportation projects but will eventually be headed toward insolvency without a long-term solution. The New York Times reported in July that if the fund runs dry, potential project delays and cancellations could put as many as 700,000 people out of work. Meanwhile, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Scorecard recently gave America’s infrastructure a grade of “D+.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (WA-2) is a senior member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Ranking Member of the committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation and a Vice-Chair of the New Democrat Coalition. He spoke with Republic 3.0 about the impacts of “legislating by crisis” on America’s broader competitiveness. He also spoke about his efforts to focus on the nation’s long-term infrastructure priorities – such as the modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system and emerging issues in Arctic policy. Larsen argues that despite polarization and gridlock, bipartisanship and serious policymaking are still possible in Washington.

Rep. Rick Larsen (WA-2)

Rep. Rick Larsen (WA-2)

R3.0: How is “legislating by crisis” affecting the ability of Congress to think about, plan – and fund – long-term investments in infrastructure?

Larsen: The way I’ve described it is that we’re taking a “MacGyver” type approach to highway funding. We’re finding a piece of scrap metal here and a piece of string over there and a pair of socks over here, and we’re going to build an airplane out of it, just like MacGyver would. We’re patching this up by taking pieces of funding and filling in the hole.

The problem is that we’re going to get a “MacGruber” result – it’s going to blow up in our face. When you legislate by crisis, you end up patching to get a solution, but that solution will eventually blow up because it can’t last.

That’s bad news for transportation investment because state and local governments plan well ahead for the projects they’re going to do. And the private sector – general contractors, engineers, consultants, and their workers – also plans well ahead.

I was home recently talking to people in Skagit County about bridges and bridge replacement – we had the Skagit River Bridge collapse in my district last year. What they have been able to do in Skagit County is to use what money they have to plan and design what they want to do. But they’re in no position to fund bridge replacements by themselves.

If we can’t fix the long-term funding of the federal Highway Trust Fund, transportation infrastructure investment – and the construction jobs that go with it – will grind to a halt.

R3.0: Why is long-term planning so critical to the way infrastructure projects are funded?

“When you legislate by crisis, you end up patching to get a solution, but that solution will eventually blow up because it can’t last.”
Larsen: [For state and local governments,] the first step in any planned infrastructure investment is to put it into a five-year transportation improvement plan (TIP), and then go out and chase the money for it.

So you’re looking at a five-year window, and it works pretty well so long as you knew there’s going to be a federal funding component to major projects. But if you don’t have that, you might have to wait one or two more construction seasons to build a reserve in order to build fewer projects.

If everything works perfectly, you’re still looking at anywhere from an 18 to 24 month process from the time you get a project in your [transportation improvement plan] to the time you get planning, design and construction done. Now you’re going to delay that process if you know the dollars aren’t going to be there. It means less money, fewer projects and, more importantly, fewer people working in what are typically higher-paying jobs.

If most members talk to their local public works directors and their state highway or state transportation officials, they would hear a very consistent message: we can do a lot at the state level, but we can’t do everything.

R3.0: Have you ever experienced this level of gridlock before?

“Our economic agenda needs to include investment in a robust transportation network that moves people, freight and goods if we are going to be competitive against other countries.”
Larsen: Not in the time I’ve been here has it been this bad.

Even if you go all the way back to the 1956 Interstate Highway Act under [President] Eisenhower, when the federal government took a more organized approach to helping state and local governments fund bridges, roads, highways and eventually transit, it’s always been bipartisan.

[President] Ronald Reagan – who was known for cutting taxes and being very focused on the private sector – [passed transportation legislation] under his watch that included a gas tax increase and transit. It was a major bipartisan vote in Congress.

Today, it’s very difficult to find “Reagan Republicans” who are strongly supportive of including transit in surface transportation funding. Maybe in rural areas transit is not as popular, but in urban and, increasingly, in suburban areas where many Republicans live today, transit is extremely popular. The test here is for Congress to craft the right suburban-urban-rural coalition where people’s needs are met, and the only way to do that is to have a robust enough funding package.

Because we have a transportation network that serves the entire country, it’s very important that we have a federal transportation bill. Products grown in Washington State end up overseas. Some of it goes through ports in Washington State; some of it goes to Chicago before it ends up on the East Coast and then to Europe. Some of it goes by train, and some of it goes by truck. Our economic agenda needs to include investment in a robust transportation network that moves people, freight and goods if we are going to be competitive against other countries.

R3.0: Do you have a preferred long-term solution for financing the Highway Trust Fund?

Larsen: Right now the Highway Trust Fund is largely funded by the gas tax.

I think a combination of a gas tax increase tied to the inflation rate and a more robust use of strategies like public-private partnerships, tolling where it’s appropriate, TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act), as well as private activity bonds, is the way to go.

Rather than lead with a gas tax increase, lead with [these other options] and buy down the level of the gas increase you might need in the next five years. In order to create the coalition necessary for longer term funding, some people are going to have to be comfortable that we’re doing everything else before we look at the gas tax.

R3.0: Another potential consequence of “legislating by crisis” is that some priorities might not get the attention they need – until it’s too late. For example, you’ve been very active in improving U.S. policy towards the Arctic, and you’ve called for more investment in the U.S. icebreaker fleet. Why is the Arctic such a priority for you?

Larsen: I receive some light ribbing from a few members and from people in my district about “feeling threatened by Santa Claus” and how we need an Arctic policy to deal with that. It’s ribbing that I take good-naturedly.

“Right now, Singapore has a more focused agenda on the Arctic than the United States… [T]hey and other countries like China are very interested in the natural resources there.”
A lot of people don’t consider the Arctic as our place. But there is a state – Alaska – that is in the Arctic. The Arctic Circle runs right through it. The water off of Alaska is Alaskan – but we also have an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) that we need to control and monitor. We would never think of not taking care of the EEZ off of California, or off of Washington or off of the Atlantic seaboard.

As the Arctic ice recedes each year because of global warming, it means more open water during more of the year. It’s open water that’s still very cold and still has ice floes going through it, but it’s open water that’s going to be used by shipping, and by eco-tourism, and the Administration has been clear about moving forward on letting leases for offshore oil platform and natural gas platform drilling.

The way to think about the Arctic is that we have three strong policy reasons to be there – economic, strategic and environmental.

Our interests are economic because we have an EEZ that we are responsible for. We also have territorial water beyond [the EEZ] that we ought to be responsible for and to take actions as a responsible nation would so that we control what happens to those resources as opposed to other countries.

It’s strategic because open water means more activity, and it could mean more activity from the military of other countries just spending time there. We need to know what they’re doing, and that’s why the Coast Guard’s involvement is critical, and the Navy’s involvement is critical.

And it’s environmental. Whatever happens, there is going to be new activity and potential for environmental loss. But there’s also a huge environmental story in the Arctic that isn’t being told because it’s so far north.

Just because the Arctic is at a latitude that’s a very high number does not mean that the United States should ignore it – other countries are not.

R3.0: You’ve introduced bipartisan legislation to create an Ambassador-level position for Arctic affairs.

Larsen: Other countries have it. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation with [Rep. Jim] Sensenbrenner to create an ambassador to the Arctic to coordinate our activities in the Arctic Council.

The United States takes over the chair of the Arctic Council next year. Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark are all members, and there are observer status countries such as Singapore.

People are very confused by Singapore’s observer status in the Arctic Council, but they and other countries like China are very interested in the natural resources there.

Singapore is a country – but it’s also a company. The state-owned enterprises of Singapore are very active in supporting natural resource development and exploration, and they want to be a part of whatever future natural resource development takes place in the Arctic.

I would also say that right now, Singapore has a more focused agenda on the Arctic than the United States.

There are 20 different agencies dealing with the Arctic right now in our government, but there are only two state department staff dealing with the Arctic. You can go down almost every issue the State Department deals with – except perhaps for cultural exchanges – and you can find an Arctic connection. Yet there are only two people dealing with it.

We spend no time on crisis management in Congress, and we spend a lot of time on crisis watching. It’s hard to get members to focus on the 10 to 15 year window, but really successful legislating comes from focusing on a longer-term window while you’re also dealing with these crises. I’d like to think that [Reps.] Sensenbrenner and Don Young and I are at the forefront of an issue that we’ll keep pushing.

R3.0: Turning to the medium-term, another issue you’ve been working on extensively as ranking member of the Aviation Subcommittee is the modernization of the air traffic control system – “NextGen.” How is that transition progressing?

Larsen: “NextGen” is the shorthand for “next-generation” air traffic control – the idea being that we would move from ground, radar-based air traffic control to satellite, aerial-based air traffic control.

The purpose [of NextGen is] to better utilize the national air space for efficiency, thereby shortening flights and putting more airplanes in the air per mile because we’ll have better control and better situational awareness.

The benefits of NextGen have been really good on paper, but they have not played out for the airlines. So there’s frustration that I recognize. The major U.S. carriers are making investments into various technologies but they’re not seeing the dollar benefit. The savings always seem to be five years away.

R3.0: Why is that?

Larsen: It’s because of the difficulty of implementing and coordinating all these technologies. There’s some legitimate resistance from the operators – air traffic control and FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] managers.

If you think about what their job is, their job is to get people up and down safely. And if people are getting up and down safely now, why trade that for something you’re not sure about? I fly a lot, and I don’t blame folks for not wanting to do anything that would impact my safety. They know what they’re doing now, and it impacts my safety in a very positive way. It’s taking more time than people thought it would to get acceptance [for NextGen] at the operator level from air traffic controllers and others. But it’s coming.

And in the last six months, what I’ve done with Chairman [Frank] LoBiondo of the Aviation Subcommittee is work with the FAA and work with the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) and the [public-private] RTCA to define the five top priorities of NextGen implementation.

The budget that’s been proposed lines up well with those five priorities, but it really will come down to getting the operators and air traffic controllers to make these changes. I’m confident it will happen – it’s just taking longer than the airlines want.

R3.0: A related aviation issue in which the budget battles of the last few months have had direct impact is on the hiring of air traffic controllers. What are the implications for air safety down the road?

“If we keep legislating by crisis, crisis after crisis, I think we have to ask what is it that we are doing here. But I personally think we will get over this eventually. We’ll get this out of our system and get back to legislating for the future instead of by crisis.
Larsen: We have a challenge in replacing air traffic controllers who are retiring. What sequestration did is open the eyes of a lot of folks close to retirement who are now saying, “There’s no reason for me to stay one day beyond my retirement day if this is what my future is going to be like.”

Instead of getting the advantage of people who hit retirement age and stay on, we’re probably going to get the disadvantage of people who hit retirement age and leave. So there’s probably going to be faster attrition.

The FAA is working really hard with NATCA, the national air traffic controllers association, to recruit and train the next generation of air traffic controllers. But the issue is that it’s a two-year process from the day you get hired to the day where you get the keys to the car and start driving. You want people to know what they’re doing because they’re responsible for the safety of 180-250 people every time an airplane goes up.

The other thing about sequestration is that it kick-started a discussion about how to reform air traffic control overall. People are looking at models like NAV CANADA, which is a non-profit corporation [that runs Canada’s] air traffic control system. Europe has a different system.

The argument is that if you can move ATO [the Air Traffic Organization] out of the FAA, can you make it more financially stable so that sequestration doesn’t become a problem? There are a ton of other issues that go along with that – not just how you would run that kind of operation, and who would run that kind of operation, but what [functions] you would have left at FAA – like certifying products and platforms so that domestic manufacturers can build airplanes.

That’s an important issue – the longer the certification process takes, the longer it takes to build an airplane and the fewer jobs you create. That’s just one set of issues that’s part of this [coming] debate about air traffic and how it’s organized.

R3.0: Do you have a particular position on this issue?

Larsen: The short answer is no. I’ve been gathering information from a lot of sources and talking to a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about what they want to do and, more importantly, why they want to do it. What people want to do may not necessarily get them the results they’re looking for. There may be other ways to achieve the results they want and solve their problems rather than to lead with the solution first.

R3.0: With so many issues both pending and on the table now, what do you see as the prognosis for Congress?

Larsen: If we keep legislating by crisis, crisis after crisis, I think we have to ask what is it that we are doing here. But I personally think we will get over this eventually. We’ll get this out of our system and get back to legislating for the future instead of by crisis.