WATCH: Sen. Kelly Presses Federal Highway Administrator on I-10 Expansion and Tribal Infrastructure Funding During Senate Hearing
Yesterday, during a Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee hearing, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly pressed Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt on the urgency of widening Interstate 10 and making federal infrastructure funding more accessible to tribal communities.
Expanding segments of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson where there are just two lanes in each direction would minimize accidents, reduce congestion, and improve connectivity for the Gila River Indian Community. During the hearing, Sen. Kelly also highlighted the importance of not overlooking the infrastructure needs of tribal communities and asked the Federal Highway Administration to commit to working with Arizona to support its rapidly growing population.
As a member of the Senate EPW Committee and a key negotiator of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Kelly helped establish the first of its kind National Infrastructure Project Assistance program which funds major transportation projects like the expansion of I-10.
Click here to watch the exchange. See below for a complete transcript:
Senator Kelly Questions Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt
Sen. Kelly: Administrator Bhatt, thanks again for being here. Great to see you. I want to start by discussing a project to widen Interstate 10, which goes through Arizona. It goes all the way across the country, in fact, but the area between Phoenix and Tucson is a problem. Every single day, there is an accident that backs up this stretch of highway for hours. It’s because there are portions of this highway that are just two lanes in each direction. It is a major safety issue. It’s also worth noting that this stretch of roadway that I’m talking about is within the Gila River Indian community, yet the infrastructure does not currently exist to adequately connect the community to this critical transportation corridor.
Fortunately, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Gila River Indian community, and local leaders from throughout Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties have come together to support a comprehensive plan to add an extra lane to the interstate in each direction and add several critical interchanges to improve connectivity for the Gila River community. To date, the state of Arizona and the Maricopa Association of Governments have committed more than 850 million dollars in state and local transportation funding to complete this project. It’s a lot of money.
We’re hoping to make up the remainder of the funding with either an INFRA [Nationally Significant Multimodal Freight & Highway Projects program] or a MEGA [National Infrastructure Project Assistance program] grant this year. Administrator Bhatt, can you provide any indication of when you expect the notice of funding opportunity for the INFRA and MEGA grants?
Admin. Bhatt: Thank you, Senator Kelly. I am very aware both of the importance of that interstate to those communities of Phoenix and Tucson, and then also as a vital freight corridor for the United States. I am happy to be in contact with Director Toth, as well, if that would be helpful. I won’t give you specifics, but we have so many of these that are coming out. But, again, I believe that this would be one that would be coming out in the summer timeframe, as well.
Sen. Kelly: So sometime in the summer. Can you get back to my office with a specific date?
Admin. Bhatt: Absolutely, sir.
Sen. Kelly: Thank you. As you know, we applied for one of the MEGA grants last year for this specific project. We did not receive it. After that decision, I heard concerns from some in Arizona that the project was not selected in favor of other multimodal projects. I know you cannot comment on a specific project, but can you speak more broadly about whether projects to expand interstates—especially in fast growing states like Arizona—could be competitive for a future MEGA or an INFRA grant award?
Admin. Bhatt: Thank you, Senator. I think that what we always want to make sure of is that, you know, we think that states and locals are the ones who make the best decisions about their transportation needs. And I’m happy to work with those communities. I think on MEGA, we’re probably weeks—not months—away on MEGA.
Sen. Kelly: Is there any reason why adding additional lanes to an interstate would not qualify for a MEGA grant?
Admin. Bhatt: There are some of the carbon reduction program grants that specifically forbid it. But there’s nothing expressly in the law that would prevent a capacity under some of these programs.
Sen. Kelly: Last year there were nine MEGA grants awarded. I think that was the number. We took a look at them closely and none of them appeared to be located on tribal land or to meaningfully serve tribal communities. Can you speak to work that Federal Highways is doing to ensure that tribal communities are able to apply for and be competitive for grant funding opportunities like the MEGA and INFRA grants?
Admin. Bhatt: Thank you, Senator. I worked closely with the Ute tribe in Colorado when I was the director there and I’m aware of the sometimes unique circumstances there. We have a tribal technical assistance program, and we work directly with tribes to help them apply. I’m happy to connect with your office to provide more details.
Sen. Kelly: Helping them apply—does that also help them to be competitive?
Admin. Bhatt: I believe those two would be synonymous, but I want to just double check.
Sen. Kelly: Okay, thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.