WASHINGTON – Members of the U.S. House on Wednesday spelled out some of the provisions they'd like to see included in President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure proposal – and the pleas of the Buffalo area's representatives could not have been more different.
Testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said Biden's American Jobs Plan could fix what he sees as the highway mistakes of the past – including the Skyway as well as the Kensington and Scajaquada expressways.
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican, asked the committee to include in its bill his first legislative proposal, which would exempt federally funded projects from a New York State law that increases the liability that business owners face for worksite accidents. Jacobs never mentioned any particular highways in need of improvement in his sprawling district, which includes suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester and the countryside in between.
The committee's "member day" hearing was its first step in turning Biden's proposal, currently little more than a series of talking points, into legislation.
Most of the 70 lawmakers who testified talked about the highways, ports, rail lines and airports in their district that are in need of improvement. And that's just what Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the infrastructure panel, was expecting.
"Making sure members can directly advocate for their districts – as we’ll hear a lot of today – is key," DeFazio said.
That's just what Higgins did. He complained to the committee about how "an obsession with automobiles" led to the creation of the Kensington and the Scajaquada in the 1970s, thereby destroying huge swaths of the city's Olmsted park system as well as adjacent neighborhoods. And in his written statement to the committee, he added the Skyway to his list of the Buffalo region's infrastructure errors.
Biden's American Jobs Plan gives Congress the opportunity to fix those mistakes, Higgins told the committee.
"While we're going to rebuild the infrastructure of the country, we have to fix the infrastructure that has destroyed certain communities. And those communities are underserved communities in places like Buffalo, N.Y.," said Higgins, who's been pushing a huge infrastructure package similar to Biden's for years.
Biden has suggested setting aside $20 billion in his proposal specifically for reversing past infrastructure errors that harmed communities across the country, but Higgins said that's not enough. Noting that other neighborhoods in other communities suffered similar damage, he suggested expanding that pot of money to $50 billion.
"We have a great opportunity here to rebuild the infrastructure of our country, but we also have an obligation, more so than anything else, to help those underserved communities that have been devastated by decades of expressway building," Higgins said. "We need more parks. We need more parkways. We need more pedestrian and bicycle access."
For his part, though, Jacobs said Congress needs to override New York's "Scaffold Law" on federal projects so that federal infrastructure dollars can stretch farther.
"Absolute liability under the Scaffold Law means that employers and property owners are fully liable for workplace accidents, regardless of the contributing fault of the worker," Jacobs told the committee. "Due to this strict liability statute, an employer is 100% liable if an employee ... is harmed, even if that employee is very intoxicated."
In every other state, Jacobs said, the liability standard is one of "comparative negligence" – meaning a worker can be seen as at fault for a workplace accident. He said Congress should insist that that standard be used in New York as well because studies have shown that the Scaffold Law inflates the cost of projects by 8% to 10%.
"If a billion dollars right now came into New York State in federal taxpayer money through an infrastructure bill, 10% of that will be peeled off because of the Scaffold Law," Jacobs said. "One hundred million dollars would be essentially wasted. I want that money and I think most New Yorkers want that money spent on real projects."
Jacobs was one of 14 Republicans to testify at the hearing – and 11 of them delivered opening statements in which they touted prospective infrastructure projects for their districts. Jacobs was one of three whose statements dwelled on regulatory issues.
Asked why Jacobs chose to discuss the Scaffold Law rather than individual projects, his spokesman, Christian Chase, replied: "Because it drives up the cost of all construction in New York – including infrastructure – which hurts our competitiveness nationally and increases the cost for taxpayers."
Jacobs will be submitting project proposals for his district for inclusion in the infrastructure bill, Chase added.
Reforming the Scaffold Law is a longtime priority of developers in New York State. Jacobs mentioned that his bill limiting the Scaffold Law's reach has won the support of the Minority & Women Contractors & Developers Association and the National Association of Minority Contractors as well as Habitat for Humanity.
Rep. John Faso, a Hudson Valley Republican who lost his re-election bid in 2018, previously sponsored a similar bill.
Jacobs made the bill limiting the Scaffold Law the first he introduced after winning a special election to replace former Rep. Chris Collins last June. He reintroduced the measure in February, and it has one co-sponsor: Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who did not testify at Wednesday's infrastructure hearing.