Key infrastructure nominee Shailen Bhatt testifying before Senate committee

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Shailen P. Bhatt. Photo: Linkedin

The Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee will consider the Biden administration’s pick to fill the long-vacant top job at the Federal Highway Administration Wednesday, weighing a nominee who will play a key role in overseeing the infrastructure law and fixing the nation’s roads and bridges.

Biden has selected Shailen Bhatt, a former head of the Colorado and Delaware transportation departments who also served at the U.S. Transportation Department during the Obama administration.

Bhatt will probably get a warm reception from Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s chairman, who has called him an “outstanding choice.” But Bhatt is expected to face questions from committee Republicans, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), about whether the administration’s focus on the environment and racial justice goals matches provisions in the infrastructure law designed to give states flexibility to build roads as they see fit.

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About a third of last year’s $1 trillion federal infrastructure package is dedicated to roads, giving the agency an outsize role in the implementation of the law. The Federal Highway Administration has a budget of about $70 billion this year.

Still, almost all federal highway funding is passed to state officials, who can decide how to spend it as long as they follow broad requirements in federal law. Transportation Department officials are seeking to boost projects that promote alternatives to driving, bring down carbon emissions and create economic opportunities in overlooked communities, but have limited ability to influence state actions.

A guidance memo signed by the acting head of the Highway Administration last winter drew pushback from some state transportation leaders and congressional Republicans. They argued that even though the memo had no legal force, it could discourage officials from undertaking lawful projects that state officials determined were most suitable for their states.

Bhatt has influential backers who have praised his work in the transportation industry, both in government and the private sector. Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, urged the Senate to confirm him.

“Shailen Bhatt has been a tireless transportation advocate for decades, especially in the areas of safety and technology, and he makes an excellent choice by the Biden administration to lead FHWA,” Tymon said when Bhatt was nominated in July.

Other agencies at the Transportation Department also are without Senate-confirmed leaders, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

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