PLEASE NOTE THE UPDATE POSTED ON 11/21/22 BELOW. The Department of Transportation took issue with our original blog. We address why we do not think their concerns are valid in the UPDATE below.
ORIGINAL POST 11/18/2022:
Last November, President Biden signed the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The bill provides $1.2 trillion for infrastructure renovations nationwide, with $91 billion earmarked for various public transportation programs.
At the time, Biden announced Mitch Landrieu would be the White House’s Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Coordinator in charge of implementing the landmark legislation, more colloquially known as the “Infrastructure Czar.” Landrieu now oversees a $1.2 trillion dollar bill, so he must be in constant communication with the administrators of key agencies to ensure it’s money well spent … right?
One of said administrators is Nuria Fernandez, Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is an agency within the Department of Transportation that oversees public transportation. The FTA is set to administer up to $108 billion of the infrastructure bill, or about nine percent of the $1.2 trillion total price tag, through 21 different programs related to public transportation. These include funding for improved accessibility, electronic bus fleets, and expanded rail transit. These programs, in conjunction with provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, are crucial to reducing fossil fuel emissions and transitioning to a public transportation system that runs on clean energy.
Given the size and scope of the FTA’s programs, one would expect Landrieu to be working closely with Fernandez in this regard. The Revolving Door Project filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see what this coordination entailed. To our surprise, the FTA claimed it had no records whatsoever that reflect any communications between Mitch Landrieu and Nuria Fernandez. To be clear, the coordinator in charge of setting up America’s infrastructure for the 21st century has apparently not called, emailed, texted, or otherwise met with the woman who oversees public buses, subways, trains, and more for the federal government. Fernandez has presumably not even been cc’d on any of Landrieu’s White House emails, if the FOIA response is to be believed.
Publicly, Landrieu and Fernandez keep up the appearance of working together. In July, they held a press conference along with Pete Buttigieg and Senator Tammy Duckworth to announce $1.75 billion in funding for the FTA’s All Stations Accessibility Program. Fernandez recently gave a speech at the American Public Transportation Association Conference where she stated the FTA was “working with” Landrieu on the manufacturing supply chains that are delaying transit construction.
However, in light of this FOIA information, or lack thereof, it’s unclear what Landrieu is actually doing behind the scenes. Landrieu spoke last week at an event held by the right-wing American Enterprise Institute where he announced that spending thus far totals just $180 billion of the $1.2 trillion, or 15 percent of the total. Landrieu and the White House also hosted an October summit with mayors and governors to improve coordination and implementation of the bill.
We previously documented Landrieu’s concerning connections with the oil and gas industry, which includes stock holdings in numerous energy companies; $134,000 in campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests; and an outspoken support for offshore drilling, going so far as to say “oil and gas production is good.” The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes provisions for funding liquified natural gas-powered ferries and buses, and a loan guarantee for Alaskan natural gas transportation, among other programs.
It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done to effectively implement Biden’s signature legislative achievement, but we recommend Mitch Landrieu begin by speaking with the heads of the key administrative agencies responsible for spending that money and overseeing infrastructure projects.
UPDATE: POSTED NOVEMBER 21, 2022
Within hours of the original publication of this article, the Department of Transportation reached out to object to our characterization of the working relationship between Mitch Landrieu and the FTA:
As mentioned above, we acknowledge that Landrieu and Fernandez have appeared publicly together, though those instances are few and far between. We simply wanted to get more information on the coordination behind the scenes, and then reported on the information that came directly from the FTA’s FOIA department itself. Our FOIA request requested all records reflecting communications between Mitch Landrieu and Nuria Fernandez, including calendar invitations and meeting agendas. The FTA FOIA department responded, “we do not have any records responsive to your request.”
In light of the FTA’s latest clarification, it’s unclear why the FTA claimed to have no responsive records. If Landrieu and Fernandez have had multiple substantive meetings, it’s safe to assume there are records scheduling the meetings and documentation reflecting the contents of said meetings. How do principals in the government arrange a meeting without any trace of emails, text or instant messages, calendar invites, or phone calls? You would think that this meeting would produce to-do items and notes, especially given the importance of the FTA’s role in the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. FTA’s FOIA Department should, and presumably would, have provided any such records to the Revolving Door Project.
If this FOIA response was wrong and the implication of the Transportation Department’s response was right, we urge the FTA to amend their FOIA response expeditiously and provide records to reflect their assertion that Landrieu and Fernandez have been communicating. As when we filed the request in the first place, we still look forward to seeing the extent of Landrieu’s coordination with the FTA. But in the meantime, we will not apologize for taking the Transportation Department both literally and seriously when they tell us in no uncertain terms that there is no documentary evidence of interactions between the Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Nuria Fernandez, and Biden Infrastructure Czar Mitch Landrieu.