The House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee recently looked at the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) role in the evacuation following Hurricane Katrina and how it plans to lead infrastructure recovery efforts in the storm-ravaged region.
Congress has already passed two emergency supplemental bills to help with Gulf Coast recovery efforts totaling more than $70.5 billion. When Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta was asked for an estimate to repair, rebuild and upgrade transportation infrastructure in the area, the former congressman said the figure could reach upwards of $1.5-$2 billion.
Mineta said the U.S. DOT and its umbrella agencies are still working with states to assess damage costs and develop a recovery dollar amount. So far, the U.S. DOT has received roughly $420 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hurricane relief.
Comments from subcommittee members and testimony revealed the Katrina-Rita recovery efforts may be as convoluted as the evacuations efforts preceding the storms, as federal, state and local officials seek funding for the billions in damages.
Mineta said the National Response Plan (NRP) developed after the terror attacks of September 11 helped his department define its responsibilities, but that slow action and mismanagement by FEMA prevented a cohesive federal response. Mineta said FEMA performed "not well" during the Katrina evacuation and recovery.
Under the NRP, Emergency Support Function 1/Transportation calls for the U.S. DOT to do the following during an incident of national significance:
Process and coordinate requests for federal and civil transportation support;
Report damage to transportation infrastructure;
Coordinate alternate transportation services;
Coordinate the restoration and recovery of transportation infrastructure;
Perform activities conducted under the direct authority of DOT elements such as air, maritime, surface, rail and pipelines; and,
Coordinate and support prevention/preparedness/mitigation among transportation infrastructure stakeholders at the state and local levels.
Mineta said FEMA was in charge of deploying the more than 2,000 buses it requested the U.S. DOT drop off at a specified location in Louisiana. The U.S. DOT, from its Emergency Transportation Center, deployed its contractor Landstar of Jacksonville, Fla., and Mineta said the firm "performed properly" during the emergency. Responding to representatives' questions, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs Phyllis Scheinberg said Landstar was awarded its competitive-bid contract in 2002, which was not to exceed $400 million. That contact was modified on account of the hurricanes to not exceed $400 million for 2005 and expires the end of 2006.
In addition to responding to FEMA's request for vehicles, Mineta said the U.S. DOT could take its own emergency response "initiative." He said the department's goal was to keep transportation from becoming a "chokepoint" for relief efforts. Mineta told the subcommittee that for the first time in history, the secretary deployed the Ready Reserve Force for a domestic emergency to aid the relief effort.
The U.S. DOT also reacted quickly to restore fuel pipeline operations to keep oil and natural gas flowing to the South and Northeast, Mineta said, adding that the spike in fuel prices is due to the number of refineries in the Gulf Coast that haven't come back into operation.
Working with the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Mineta said the department's priorities are to restore normal traffic flow along the I-10 east-west corridor from New Orleans and along the Mississippi Coast, as well as that of U.S. 90. Passenger rail traffic remains handicapped because of the damage to the tracks owned by CSX.
Restoring passenger and cargo air operations along the coast was aided this week by Congressional passage of S. 1786, which expands the eligibility for the use of grants under the Airport Improvement Program (AIP). The act waives the AIP restriction preventing grants for income-producing facilities and includes costs for capital improvements and operations at airports such as generators and extra security personnel.
The act does not provide any additional funding under the AIP program, which has been set at $3.6 billion in the House version of the FY 2006 appropriations bill, and $3.5 billion in the Senate version.