John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent Follow on TwitterTuesday, November 9, 2021

More hiring planned as department anticipates $50 billion-per-year budget increase

The largest investment in roads, bridges and highways made by the federal government since the creation of the U.S. interstate highway system is going to require a larger federal workforce to help make it happen, according to a top official at the Department of Transportation.

At a media briefing outlining the first steps to rolling out the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that Congress approved late Friday, Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg said her department is bolstering staff to help stand up new programs included in the bill.

“We will go from being … around a $90 billion-a-year agency to one that will be closer to $140 billion,” Trottenberg said. “Not all of that money will be needed to run the department, but obviously we’re an agency that’s going to grow. We will need new members of the team, and we’re in the process of moving forward in some of those new hiring needs.”

A big concern with a major pot of federal investment dollars — the infrastructure bill contains $550 billion in new spending — is protecting the money from mismanagement and fraud.

“We know that we’re going to be held to a very high standard by the president as well as the public,” said DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a White House press conference on Monday. “We have an executive council with the deputy secretary and undersecretary, as well as myself, paying close attention to how we can make sure we have all of the right controls, the right rigor to make sure these dollars are spent well.”

Part of the $110 billion dedicated for surface projects will be used to fix up to 10 of the nation’s “economically significant” bridges, Trottenberg said, as well as 15,000 smaller ones “to avoid devastating closures” that have occurred this year, including the Interstate 40 bridge in Tennessee and the West Seattle Bridge in Washington.

The infrastructure bill also quadruples funding for the widely popular infrastructure competitive grant programs RAISE and INFRA, each of which has been funded at roughly $1 billion annually over the past five years.

One new program in the package that fell short of the funding that President Joe Biden had sought was Reconnecting Communities, which originally called for $20 billion to reconnect neighborhoods separated by the interstate highway system.

The program, which was reduced to a $1 billion pilot, is opposed by some freight advocates because it aims to dismantle portions of the interstate highway system without replacing lost transportation capacity.

Questioned about the downsizing, DOT Deputy Undersecretary Carlos Monje said it would still make a difference for urban neighborhoods fractured by interstate highways, because it is the first time any money has been dedicated for such projects. In addition, “there is a lot of other money, like road and transit money, that can also help reconnect communities,” he said.

As far as the public seeing the results on the street, Trottenberg said the infrastructure package will be “coming to life” over the next six months as both traditional funding from DOT begins flowing to states to repair and modernize roads, bridges and transit systems, and applications are opened up to access new competitive grant funds.