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WASHINGTON, DC.U.S. Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, today participated in the committee’s hearing on the Department of Transportation’s FY2023 budget. Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) Pete Buttigieg testified before the committee.

During her line of questioning with Sec. Buttigieg, Sen. Fischer highlighted how critical the Essential Air Service (EAS) is to communities across Nebraska and the country.

Sen. Fischer also raised questions regarding whether the Department of Transportation is properly implementing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, as well as how the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approaches working with state and local partners.

EAS Background:

Last week, Sen. Fischer sent a letter to Secretary Buttigieg regarding the key role the Essential Air Service plays in rural Nebraska. Sen. Fischer noted the importance of the DOT’s work with local airport authorities to ensure contracted service is not interrupted and the replacement review process goes smoothly. A copy of the letter can be found here.

In March, SkyWest Airlines announced they would be discontinuing air service at three Nebraska communities including Kearney, North Platte, and Scottsbluff.

Click the image above to watch video of Sen. Fischer’s questions 

A transcript of Sen. Fischer’s line of questioning is copied below (edited for clarity):

On the importance of Essential Air Service to Nebraska and other states:

Sen. Fischer: Secretary Buttigieg, in March, SkyWest filed a 90-day notice of its intent to terminate service at 29 Essential Air Service communities. Nebraska has three communities served by SkyWest: Kearney, North Platte, and Scottsbluff. I’m concerned about this development because Essential Air Service is critical for these rural communities. Last week, I sent a letter requesting that DOT continue issuing a hold-in order for these Nebraska airports – requiring SkyWest to perform the minimum service required by statute. Will you commit to continue issuing “hold-in” orders to SkyWest, and ensure their contractual obligations are upheld in providing service to these rural communities?

Sec. Buttigieg: Thank you for the question. We recognize how important EAS is and share your concern about this announcement by SkyWest. As you know, the DOT has ordered them to continue service. And while we will prepare a formal response to your letter, I tell you we envision extensions to ensure the public is served.

Sen. Fischer: Thank you. I hope that you will work with my office to preserve the Essential Air Service program that ensures smaller communities across my state and across this country can access larger aviation network.

On reporting on a recent FHWA memo and strong-arming state DOTs on the implementation on the bipartisan infrastructure law:

Sen. Fischer: Mr. Secretary, I found recent comments from political appointees within the administration to be extremely worrisome when it comes to decision-making that is traditionally left up to the states. For example, internal guidance about the December 16th FHWA memo directed staff on how to implement not only discretionary grants, but also formula funding and the NEPA process. These actions do not align with the bipartisan intent of law – a law that I supported.

It appears that this administration intends to have a heavy-handed and an adversarial approach with the state DOTs in the implementation of the highway program. This is a stark departure for the FHWA’s relationship with state DOTs historically.

Mr. Secretary, do you feel the administration is trying to strong-arm state DOTs and local partners in the implementation of the law, in order to advance the climate change goals that didn’t make it into the bipartisan bill?

Sec Buttigieg: Senator, I would say we very much value our working partnership with state departments of transportation, and we recognize that there are different conditions of needs in different states. We view the guidance as stating common sense priorities that are important to us as an administration and a department, but also take care to make sure that any guidance that goes out – internally or externally – is compatible with the law as written. Certainly nothing in this guidance would preclude any lawful use of funds from taking place, and if there is ever any indication that comes to you of any project that otherwise lawful that runs into trouble, I would welcome the chance to speak with you about it.

Sen. Fischer: I will hold that to you, sir, that we have that conversation. I know it is not just in my state department of transportation but it is many others across this country that are concerned with the direction they see this going.

On the FHWA’s approach to working with state and local partners:

Sen. Fischer: In your view, what is the FHWA Administrator’s role in working with transportation partners that have the boots on the ground and are charged with “turning dirt” to complete these projects?

Ultimately the success of this program depends on the local and state partners to get the job done. It is not federal bureaucrats that are going to be doing this.

Sec Buttigieg: Again, we view this as a partnership. Of course, we have a responsibility to make sure that the states spend the funds in ways that are compliant with federal law. But ultimately the bulk of the dollars are directed and deployed by those state leaders. Federal Highways has a presence on the ground in every state, which allows us to have an especially tight working relationship.

What I’ve found is that different states are at different levels of energy when it comes to pursuing some of the goals that are of interest federally and have different priorities based on conditions on the ground. But I think what is most important is to ensure that these dollars are used in a way that maximizes the value for the taxpayers. We recognize that may mean different things in different contexts, but we’ll be responsible for ensuring that any use is compliant with the law.

Sen. Fischer: I appreciate that because every state is different. Every state has funded different infrastructure projects within their state differently as well. To be able to have a state set priority without the federal government coming in, or without federally elected Senators or Representatives picking projects that they think should be priorities. I think you have to look at how states set those priorities, how they determine what those priorities are based on the plans they have worked on forever, and the goals they have set forth in their five year and ten year plans – in meeting the growth that they see in various parts of their states. It’s extremely important to be able to have those decisions be made at the state and local level, don’t you agree?

Sec Buttigieg: I agree. It’s in the context of a dialogue where Washington is never going to know all the details with local context. On the other hand, we may have access to best practices or important things to consider. We value that exchange where we provide whatever knowledge, insight, and resources we can, and the states are on the ground implementing the formula dollars.

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