As Congress infrastructure priorities take shape, Dusty Johnson unhappy with bill's high price tag

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Marcus Traxler, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D.
·4 min read
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Mar. 29—Transportation and infrastructure work are on the mind of U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson.

Johnson, the Republican from Mitchell, made a visit to Forterra Concrete on Friday in Mitchell. It was one day after a key House Committee hearing on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Washington. It comes as President Joe Biden's administration lays out its priorities for its "Build Back Better" mission, which carries an estimated $3 trillion price tag.

Johnson objects to legislation that carries that kind of price tag, which would be about 10 times more than the last transportation funding and authorization bill approved by Congress in 2015. It cost $305 billion, funded through changes to rules and regulations. He said he wants to see the highway bill passed in a bipartisan manner like it normally is, but believes that could be difficult.

"I don't know when it stops. It just seems like reality or our legislative agenda in D.C. is very unconnected from reality. It cost us $4 trillion, after you adjust for inflation, to win World War II. That was a four-year existential threat to civilization. ... The entire Eisenhower Highway System cost us $1.5 trillion after inflation. That we are looking to spend 10 times more than we spent on the last highway bill is pretty unbelievable."

Publicly announced details from the Biden administration have been limited but it's been reported that it wants to spend at least $3 trillion in new domestic projects, including $1 trillion for roads, bridges and other projects nationwide. Other Republicans have said they won't support a bill that tackles other issues such as climate change or social justice issues.

In his hearing with Congress, Buttigieg argued that the country has trillions of dollars in backlogged needed repairs and improvements, and said that the country has fallen behind China, which he said spends more on infrastructure every year than the U.S. and Europe combined. He said that transportation is a leading contributor to climate change.

"The infrastructure status quo is a threat to our collective future," he testified. "We face an imperative to create resilient infrastructure and confront inequities that have devastated communities."

In his portion of the hearing with Buttigieg, Johnson stressed that the government needs to cut down on the regulatory delays that plague federal projects. He said that the average time for an environmental impact statement for the Federal Highway Administration is seven years, far more than Germany and Canada, which do the same review within two years.

"And I understand we want to be good stewards to our country's environment but the way we do it isn't working. ... I don't think anyone would allege that Germany and Canada are reckless about the environment. I mean, we can do our reviews in a timely way. All of these federal reviews and federal delays, there are estimates that it imposes a $3.7 trillion cost to our economy. (The U.S. Department of Transportation) has got to find a better way to move large projects forward."

The Friday visit in his hometown was the latest in among many planned visits to businesses involved in transportation and infrastructure work, now that Johnson is on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the 117th Congress. He is on the subcommittees for Highway and Transit, and Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

"We will pass a five-year highway bill this year," Johnson said. "And so I think there's also a lot of need to have the talk about what kinds of types of industry, the types of jobs and the types of people that would be impacted by that."

The talking points at Forterra were not really about the highway bill. The concrete pipe industry representatives stressed opposition to rules that would change the engineer's ability to choose construction materials for taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects. They say legislation that boasts "open and fair" competition for pipes makes it more difficult for engineers to procure the right materials for a specific job.

In addition to representatives from Forterra, there were representatives from the American Concrete Pipe Association and the three Dakota Concrete Pipe Association members: Forterra (which has locations in Mitchell and Rapid City), Cemcast Pipe and Precast, of Hartford, and Hancock Concrete Products, of Sioux Falls. The companies make box culverts, sanitary manholes, and concrete inlets for all sorts of projects.

The companies talked about the importance of having an infrastructure bill, but also growing the labor market. Johnson noted there's more men than ever who are not working and could be part of the labor force.

"We're doing work every day that helps American infrastructure. It's important that we get a highway bill for so many reasons," said Forterra's Brent Klaiber, who is director of sales in the Midwest.