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President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the agency on highway policy will be considered by a Senate panel this month.
The Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to meet Nov. 29 to vote on the nomination of Shailen Bhatt for the top post at the Federal Highway Administration. Favorable backing from the panel would advance Bhatt’s nomination to the floor of the chamber during the post-election lame duck session.
Bhatt’s credentials include stints as the leader of the Delaware and Colorado departments of transportation. During a hearing before the committee earlier this year, the nominee pointed to a need to enhance safety along the country’s mobility corridors.
“There are many challenges we face as a nation with our transportation system,” Bhatt told the Senate panel, noting National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data estimating nearly 43,000 traffic fatalities in 2021. That estimate marked a 10.5% increase from the previous year.
“We must deploy every tool to immediately reverse this trend,” added the nominee, who argued investments in safety technology would benefit commuters as well as the national economy. Or as he put it, “Keep our competitive advantage for the 21st century.”
A full Senate vote to confirm Bhatt would ultimately place him in Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s leadership team at the U.S. Department of Transportation. FHWA and other agencies under DOT are tasked with processing and distributing about half of the more than $1 trillion approved in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The bipartisan infrastructure law marked its anniversary this month.
Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) is among Bhatt’s strongest proponents in the chamber. Addressing climate change is a priority for the chairman.
“As the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, drastic changes are needed to reduce emissions from the transportation sector,” Carper said in September. “We must do so while also protecting the American people and our critical infrastructure from the effects of extreme heat, flooding and other climate disasters.”
Carper continued, “Addressing these goals of safety, equity and climate mitigation have been priorities in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law. I am confident that Shailen will be able to pick this ball up and run with it, as he has done time and time again.”
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) with the Commerce Committee on trucking affairs echoed Carper’s perspective. The Colorado Democrat, who is familiar with Bhatt’s track record, suggested the nominee embodies the “bold vision we need in order to spur innovation and help meet the evolving transportation needs of the American people.”
Hickenlooper went on, “As we move forward with implementing the transformative investments made in the bipartisan infrastructure law, Mr. Bhatt’s leadership of the Federal Highway Administration will ensure these funds are used effectively to improve the safety and reliability of our nation’s highways.”
An executive at infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, Bhatt is a graduate of Western Kentucky University. Bhatt’s career includes leadership posts at DOT and at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.
Meanwhile, senior Republicans maintain their criticism of FHWA’s role in implementing provisions associated with the infrastructure law. Most GOP lawmakers on the EPW committee argue an FHWA memorandum from Dec. 16 raised questions about the Biden administration’s vision for the law.
EPW ranking member Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), suggested the FHWA memo and DOT policy guidance reports that followed “imposes a one-size-fits-all approach by discouraging transferring program funds to where they are needed most, which was a flexibility that was intentionally built into the law to ensure each state’s unique needs are met.”
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