Huffman Questions Secretary Buttigieg on Infrastructure Resiliency, Disaster Support

March 26, 2021

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, Representative Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) questioned Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg during the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing “The Administration’s Priorities for Transportation Infrastructure.” More information on the hearing and a recording  can be found here.

During the hearing, Rep. Huffman highlighted Last Chance Grade, the main transportation route on U.S. Highway 101 south of Crescent City, California. The crumbling state of this section of highway has caused massive infrastructure failures that cost the region millions of dollars, regularly disrupts travel on this vital coastal artery, and has taken lives. 

A transcript of Rep. Huffman's line of questioning can be found below.

 Representative Jared Huffman:

Secretary Buttigieg, congratulations. Welcome to our committee and thanks for your leadership. I agree with you that now is the time, this is the best opportunity we’re going to see in our lifetimes to do something big and transformative and to do double duty by tackling our climate crisis as we tackle our infrastructure needs.

So I’m coming to you from the North Coast of California, where again you have a standing invitation to visit, in addition to showing you one of the most beautiful places in the world I would love to show you a lot of aging and failing infrastructure, including highways, roads, and bridges. We are also on the front line of climate change, not just the catastrophic wildfires that have swept our state, but a host of other climate impacts from severe droughts to flooding, rising sea levels, and changing ocean conditions.

We are acutely aware that just building back infrastructure to the standards and expectations we had decades ago is not going to cut it. We’ve got to build back better with an eye toward climate impact, so I’d like to ask you about two specific programs that can help us do that. First is in the reauthorization that this committee created last year. We created a new pre-disaster mitigation program. This would relocate or replace transportation infrastructure projects that are repeatedly failing. It is common sense I believe that if you’re endlessly fixing a section of highway that keeps failing you shouldn’t use expensive band-aids forever.

You should find a permanent fix, and the poster child for this problem is on a rugged stretch of coastline in my district just south of Crescent City where highway 101 clings sometimes to a very steep, crumbling cliff high above the ocean. It’s known as Last Chance Grade, and because the hillside is constantly sliding, the road is often closed for weeks or months at a time while Caltrans figures out another way to temporarily keep it from falling into the ocean. This is our main north-south transportation corridor, so every time it closes it disrupts the entire region, and we know that a massive failure that would cost the region $130 million annually, in addition to whatever lives would be lost is just a matter of time.

So we’re trying to get ahead of this by convening a conference of stakeholder groups and identifying the most viable, cost-effective ways to reroute this stretch of highway. We are going to do that, but this is a remote, rural, economically challenged area. We’re going to need a significant federal investment to get it done. So, Secretary Buttigieg, can you discuss what the administration wants to do for projects like Last Chance Grade where critical infrastructure keeps failing and really needs to be rerouted and replaced? Do you agree we need a dedicated program like what we passed out of the House last year? 

Secretary Buttigieg:

Thanks for raising this, I agree that it’s very important for us to make sure however we do it structurally or programmatically, and you’ve laid out a great template for a way to do it. We recognize that the conditions are shifting. Sometimes literally the ground is shifting beneath the infrastructure that we are contemplating, and sometimes the right answer will change if not within the lifetime of the authorization, certainly within the lifetime of the project. Shame on us if we’re building roads or bridges or anything else that’s expected to last into the 2070’s without thinking about how that’s going to look different than the 1970’s. I think that forward-looking approach to resiliency needs to be woven into every part of the way we approach our infrastructure spending. 

Representative Jared Huffman:

Thank you Mr. Secretary. So we’ve talked a lot about resiliency. I’ve described the climate impacts we’re feeling in California. There’s another federal program that really helps disaster-impacted communities repair roads, get back on their feet. It’s the Emergency Relief or ER program. And disasters often devastate entire regions which can cause material and workforce shortages. That makes it hard to meet the program’s two year timeline for beginning construction. The last administration was completely unsympathetic to this problem. They rejected a number of extension requests in my district and elsewhere.

This jeopardizes tens of millions of dollars in construction projects that we need to repair roads and get back on our feet. And this committee took action to fix it last year. We favorably reported changes to the ER program. Every single Democrat in California supports it. We’re going to keep tackling this. But as we try to pass this legislation, you’re in position to assure disaster-impacted communities that reasonable requests for extension will be considered, unlike what we got from the last administration. Will you provide us that assurance?

Secretary Buttigieg:

I will make sure that there’s every reasonable consideration of those conditions. We understand the impatience of course that’s encoded into our programs to make sure they get done, but it can’t be one size fits all, especially for disaster-impacted communities like those you’re describing.

Representative Jared Huffman:

I really appreciate that Mr. Secretary. I yield back.  


Congressman Jared Huffman represents California’s 2nd Congressional District, which spans the North Coast of the state from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, and includes Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, and Del Norte counties. He currently serves on the Committee on Natural Resources, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. In the 117th Congress, he chairs the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife. He is the founder of the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

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