Bhatt will likely get a warm welcome from Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s chairman, who called him “an outstanding choice.” But Bhatt is expected to face questions from Republicans on the committee, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), about whether the administration’s focus on environmental and racial justice goals matches provisions of the Infrastructure Act designed to give states the flexibility to build roads as they see fit.
About a third of last year’s $1 trillion federal infrastructure package is spent on roads, giving the agency an outsized role in implementing the law. The Federal Highway Administration has a budget of about $70 billion this year.
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Yet nearly all federal highway funding is funneled through to state officials, who can decide how to spend it as long as they meet the general requirements of federal law. Department of Transportation officials seek to boost projects that promote alternatives to driving, reduce carbon emissions and create economic opportunity in neglected communities, but have limited ability to influence state actions.
A policy memo signed by the acting chief of the Highway Administration last winter caught the attention of some state transportation leaders and congressional Republicans. They argued that while the memo had no legal force, it could discourage officials from undertaking legal projects that state officials deemed best suited for their states.
Bhatt has influential backers who have praised his work in the transport industry, both in government and in the private sector. Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, urged the Senate to confirm it.
“Shailen Bhatt has been a tireless advocate for transportation for decades, particularly in the areas of security and technology, and he is an excellent choice by the Biden administration to lead the FHWA,” Tymon said when Bhatt was appointed in July.
Other DOT agencies also lack Senate-confirmed leaders, including the Federal Aviation Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.