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In Senate hearing, local officials stand up for greater access to federal funds

Now that the Environment and Public Works Committee has passed the highway title of the Senate’s next transportation bill, attention shifts to three other committees writing remaining portions of the bill. Last week the Commerce Committee held a hearing on “local perspectives on moving America”, including testimony from T4America’s John Robert Smith, the former mayor of Meridian, MS.

Testifying at the invitation of Senator Richard Blumenthal, Mayor Smith explained how Congress can help provide “the tools and resources to invest in innovative transportation solutions that are critical to [local communities’] economic competitiveness.”


Watch full Senate hearing here

“Every day, my constituents in Meridian would stop me and tell me — whether it was at the grocery store or church — about their transportation challenges,” said Mayor Smith.

“But as mayor, I was frustrated to see limited choices of where I could go to for funding to meet the challenges of the people I served. …In fact, local leaders had almost no access to federal dollars.”

During the Q&A that followed the testimony, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) echoed that sentiment that local leaders like Mayor Smith often have a better grasp on those needs. “It was interesting to me to hear a Democratic member of the United States Senate [Senator Cory Booker] from the Northeast,” Sen. Wicker noted, “saying the very sorts of things that a Republican member from the Southeast would say about the wisdom of local government and the officials that are closer to the people knowing the needs better.”

Accompanied by Mayor Sly James from Kansas City, MO, and Mayor David Martin from Stamford, CT, along with other local stakeholders, Smith recommended that Congress stabilize and increase revenues for the Highway Trust Fund to support all modes of transportation. He urged lawmakers to take advantage of the opportunity provided by reauthorization to make policy changes to allow local communities to compete for and control a larger share of the resources they need to succeed.

Noting the Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction over freight and rail policy, his full written remarks stressed the importance of maintaining and expanding the national intercity passenger rail system and providing it dedicated funding, as well as the need to make our freight system truly multimodal. (Read his full testimony here.)

But the most pressing issue before Congress right now is the looming insolvency of the trust fund — a problem that the Finance Committee will have to solve.

“If Congress does not act to provide additional revenues for the Highway Trust Fund, these plans and projects would be stopped in their tracks, with real — and likely lasting — effects on the nation’s economy,” said Smith.

T4America’s proposal to raise revenues has been endorsed by a number of local chambers of commerce, cities, and other organizations, including: MetroHartford Alliance (CT), the City of Gainesville, FL, and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, among many others.

“The most important message I have to deliver today is that the status quo is not acceptable,” said Mayor Smith in his closing remarks.

“Mayors and local elected officials are doing everything they can to improve their transportation systems and keep their economies strong — which are the base of a strong national economy. But they need a federal partner. Too often, they’re shut out of this process. The federal government can and must do more to help local leaders meet the transportation needs that their citizens require.”