I serve as a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Early in 2009, Chairman Oberstar, the Chair of the Committee, began to lead our Committee’s effort to develop the next surface transportation authorization – the bill that will succeed the SAFETEA-LU bill. He has proposed a ground-breaking bill that would significantly reform many of the existing highway and transit programs. However, the bill has a $500 billion price tag – and that cost simply cannot be supported by existing revenue streams.
At approximately the same time the T&I Committee began to discuss moving the next transportation authorization, the Obama Administration announced its support for an 18-month extension to SAFETEA-LU. This announcement frankly removed from Congress a lot of the impetus for considering the next reauthorization.
The single biggest question confronting the Congress as it considers the next authorization is how to pay for it. The Federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon; it has not been raised since 1993. This tax – combined even with the general funds that help support some transit programs – could not even pay for the SAFETEA-LU bill, much less support the increases in investments that are needed to meet our current infrastructure needs or to fund a bill such as Chairman Oberstar has proposed.
Frankly, at this time, there is simply no political will to consider seriously the alternatives that would be likely to generate increased revenue for the transportation program. There is no will to raise the gas tax in this economic environment – and while innovative new ideas have been proposed (such as creating an infrastructure bank), they will not generate the kinds of revenues that are needed.
The SAFETEA-LU bill expired officially last September. It has already been extended several times. The current extension was enacted as part of the DOD appropriations legislation and runs through the end of February 2010. The “Jobs for Main Street” legislation that passed the House extended SAFETEA-LU through September 30, 2010.
One issue facing many small businesses, particularly in disadvantaged areas, is the inability to compete for Federal government contracts, because of an inability to receive bonding. To aid small businesses throughout the nation who want to share in the rebirth of our nation’s infrastructure, I introduced H.R. 2991, the Department of Transportation Bonding Assistance Authority Act of 2009, to help level the playing field for businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals such as ethnic minorities, veterans, and women.
By their very nature, disadvantaged businesses are faced with seemingly endless and often unnecessary obstacles to success, and we must do everything we can to even the playing field so these companies can compete. This legislation would provide the opportunity for disadvantaged businesses to receive bonding assistance, removing one of the largest hurdles limiting their efforts to bid on federally supported transportation projects.
Lack of access to bonding is one of the largest hurdles that disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs) face as they contemplate bidding on federally supported transportation projects, including those created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Particularly in the current economic climate, many DBEs are unable to obtain bid, performance, and other types of bonds due to limited capital availability.
I am pleased to report that after working closely with my colleagues, including the Chairman of the full Committee on Transportation, Congressman Oberstar, and the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Congressman Obey, $20 million in funding was included in the stimulus to provide bonding assistance for disadvantaged business enterprises.
This funding was directed to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which recently announced that it will be used to fund a DBE Bonding Assistance Program that will provide reimbursements to small and disadvantaged businesses for the bonding premiums and fees they incur when they compete for or perform work on stimulus-funded projects.
I note that this funding must be used by September 30, 2010 – so it is imperative that disadvantaged businesses begin to submit their applications as soon as possible.
To be eligible to participate in this program, a business must be a certified Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and have a current Dun and Bradstreet Number. More information about this program is available on the USDOT’s website – and the Department has published a brochure that details the program.
We need to ensure that every eligible company has the opportunity to compete for these projects so that we have a fair process as well as the highest quality of work as we restore and expand our nation’s transportation infrastructure. This legislation moves us miles ahead in achieving this goal.
United States Coast Guard
The first hearing I convened during my tenure as the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation in 2007 examined the mismanagement of the Coast Guard’s multi-billion dollar Deepwater program intended to modernize the service’s surface and air assets. Since that time, Coast Guard has taken significant steps to improve the oversight and management of its acquisition programs and to position itself to effectively manage contractors and protect taxpayers’ investments in Coast Guard assets.
It is clear that the Coast Guard is moving miles ahead in improving its management of the acquisition process, and the bipartisan Coast Guard Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, H.R. 1665, which unanimously passed the house will help build on the Coast Guard’s acquisition reform efforts and ensure accountability in the use of taxpayer dollars.
The Coast Guard Acquisition Reform Act takes lessons learned from previous misuse of taxpayer funds to institutionalize the processes and procedures that will help the Coast Guard meet the standards that must accompany the expenditure of every single tax dollar.
While the Coast Guard has taken these positive steps to restructure its acquisition management systems, there are still challenges remaining in the implementation of these new systems. H.R. 1665 addresses these challenges by strengthening specific acquisition processes. Specifically, the bill would:
- Prohibit the Coast Guard from using a private sector lead systems integrator;
- Require the appointment of a Chief Acquisition Officer who must be a Level III Program Manager with at least 10 years of professional experience in acquisition management; and
- Require the development of independent life-cycle cost estimates and testing and evaluation plans for the largest acquisition programs.
This legislation helps to ensure that the Coast Guard establishes an effective and efficient acquisition process that will be implemented long after the current leadership has left.
I also convened the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation to review the Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue (SAR) Mission in light of shortcomings identified in two SAR cases.
Many questions asked in the hearing centered around two SAR incidents in which lives were lost. In a 2007 incident in California, a freighter collided with a fishing boat named the Buona Madre. The fisherman aboard the Buona Madre was found dead in the water a day after the Coast Guard ended its SAR case after mistakenly concluding that no collision had occurred. An eventual investigation showed that the Coast Guard did not use the “full range of search and rescue resources” in this case.
The second incident, earlier in 2009, involved a 54-foot fishing boat, the Patriot, which sunk near Gloucester, MA. In this case, it is likely that both of the individuals on the Patriot probably died and their vessel had sunk before the Coast Guard was even alerted to the existence of a possible crisis. However, the subsequent investigation of this SAR effort uncovered what the Coast Guard itself calls an “inefficient” response that “revealed several procedural, training, and judgment short-falls.”
Coast Guard RADM Sally Brice-O’Hara discussed the impact that shortfalls in Coast Guard resources, particularly in personnel has had on the SAR program, including limiting the service’s ability to convert some command positions from 24-hour watches to 12-hour watches. However, Brice-O’Hara emphasized the Coast Guard has taken action to address current shortcomings.
The USCG has extended the maritime search planning course at the National SAR School and introduced a Command Center training course for new Operations Unit Controllers. The Coast Guard is also adding more than 200 positions to strengthen Command Center staffing.
The SAR mission is one of the Coast Guard’s most central missions, one that the service typically executes with exceptional efficiency. Shortcomings have been uncovered in the Coast Guard’s management of this mission through the Buona Madre and Patriot cases.They are deeply troubling – particularly as they point to relatively inexperienced personnel in Command Centers who lacked judgment and analytical skills critical to the Coast Guard’s ability to manage complex SAR cases.
I applaud the measures taken by the Coast Guard to increase the number of Command Center personnel and improve training to ensure adequate staffing with fully trained individuals. I know the Coast Guard will continue to thoroughly assess its performance of this mission and to respond decisively to any shortcomings it identifies. I will continue to fight to ensure this service has resources equal to the demands made of it. Those resources are particularly critical because every SAR case involves a life in imminent peril.
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