Federal highway administration faces huge backlog of funding requests

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The Federal Highway Administration is under immense pressure to respond to the backlog of requests it has on its emergency relief fund in addition to its specific action on rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge and implementing the goal of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country by the end of the decade.

That was the subject of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works hearing Wednesday that brought Shailen Bhatt, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration in to discuss the $62.1 billion slated for the FHWA for 2025.

“There’s about $4.4 billion in ER requests that are out there now and we have about $850 million in available ER funding,” Bhatt said. “For ease I’m going to say there’s $3.5 billion in unmet needs for the ER program, $1.5 billion of that is what we have tagged right now for the FSK bridge rebuild and the other $2 billion are from states across the country from various fires and floods and other events that have impacted states from California to Tennessee.”

Sen. Tom Carper ran the questioning Wednesday as chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Bhatt added that roughly $100 million per year comes through the appropriation process to top up the ER funds. “Obviously that is not consistent with what the unmet need is now,” he said.

Questions about how much the federal government can contribute to the originally bond-financed FSK Bridge after its March collapse have been bandied back and forth over the last few months. President Biden ignited the debate just hours after the bridge fell, announcing that the federal government would cover the entire cost. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is currently reviewing the federal response.

And while the federal government will tap the FHWA’s ER funds to finance it, the State of Maryland is also slated to receive $350 million by insurer Chubb. The ER fund requires the FHWA to make every effort to recover insurance funds from the state and to reimburse the ER fund.

“Our lawyers are looking closely at the insurance policy as it is written, just as if you had a home insurance policy, they don’t just hand you a check. There are things that are required in it,” Bhatt said. “We are grateful that they will make that funding available but we just want to make sure that we’re not skipping any steps as we analyze what’s in there.”

The FHWA anticipates it taking four years to rebuild the FSK Bridge.

The agency is also responsible for implementing President Biden’s plan to have 500,000 electric vehicle charging ports by the end of the decade, but so far, the private sector has far outpaced the public in the race to build the infrastructure required.

“There’s about 183,000 charging ports out there available now, the vast majority of those are private sector,” Bhatt said. “There are six states that have [National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure] chargers that are out the door now. People say, well, that’s only six chargers but it’s actually dozens of charging ports and I would say we are on track to have thousands more charging ports to become available this year.”

Questions about how many actual chargers the NEVI program has delivered so far has also been controversial. 

“I’ve heard it’s only seven charging ports, seven out of 500,000,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. said in his questioning.

The program has been criticized for its slow roll out but Bhatt assured the committee that they are still on pace to reach the 500,000 goal before 2030.

“I’m not happy about the fact that we are, I would say, months behind where we were but with the amount of work that was needed to get that program set up, we want to continue to work with every single state to accelerate that delivery,” Bhatt said.

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