Article I section 8 of the United States Constitution grants the Congress the power to provide for the “general welfare,” establish “post roads,” and purchase land to create “dock-yards, and other needful buildings.” Thus, although the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Public Works was not established until 1946, the Congress has played a vital role to the development of transportation and infrastructure throughout the history of our republic.
One of the earliest bills the House considered, on July 16, 1789, authorized the establishment of lighthouses and beacons near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. Signed into law by President Washington on August 7th, this act led to the first public works project of the federal government, a lighthouse on Cape Henry, to guide shipping in Hampton Roads. On September 1st, Washington also signed the act for “Registering and Clearing Vessels [and] Regulating the Coasting Trade.”
On March 29, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed the National Road Act, authorizing a road from Cumberland, MD, to Wheeling, VA (now West Virginia). The first mail coaches began using it in 1818, and Congress continued to fund its expansion, extending the road to Vandalia, IL, by 1839. The National Road greatly contributed to the growth and interconnection of the United States.
In April 1824, with the passage of the General Survey Act, Congress provided for national planning for roads and canals, to begin creating an efficient national transportation infrastructure. Congress encouraged the development of railroads in the 1850s and 1860s, granting federal lands for railroad rights of way, and authorizing loans and construction of a transcontinental railroad, which was completed in May, 1869.
After the Civil War, Congress turned to the development of the Mississippi river and its tributaries, with dams, levies, and irrigation systems to harness the resources of the vast inland region. In 1882 Congress passed, over a presidential veto, an appropriation to provide nearly $19 million for over four hundred river and harbor improvement projects in thirty-five states and four territories. The next year, the House of Representatives created the Committee on Rivers and Harbors.
In the 1880s, problems with railroad rates, labor, and safety led Congress to create the Interstate Commerce Commission, to regulate railroad rates and policies. Over the next three decades Congress continued to pass laws on railroad safety and labor arbitration, empowering the ICC to oversee the nation’s rail network.
Increasing concerns over the nation’s coastal waterways led Congress to consolidate the Revenue-Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service into the U.S. Coast Guard in January 1915. Later that same year it also passed the Seaman’s Act, regulating hours, wages and safety of the merchant marine. During World War I, Congress passed a series of laws increasing control over shipping and the railroads, forming the U.S. Shipping Board to acquire merchant vessels; after the war it returned merchant shipping and railroads to private control in 1920.
The development and surging popularity of the automobile led to demands for improved roads. In 1913 the House created its Committee on Roads, but both Houses debated the proper federal role in an area traditionally under state or local jurisdiction. Congress first passed the Federal Aid Road Act in July 1916, to
provide federal aid for rural post and “farm-to-market” roads, although it did mandate states create highway agencies with professional engineers to receive such aid. To publicize the conditions of the nation’s roads, a military convoy (which included a young Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower) left Washington, DC, for San Francisco along Lincoln Highway in July 1919. The transcontinental trip took two months, at an average speed of 6 mph, as few paved roads existed west of Illinois. Two years later, Congress passed the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which provided federal aid for long-distance paved roads, with special standards to encourage interstate trucking. Public works expanded significantly during the 1930s, as Congress funded emergency measures first under President Hoover, then under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
After World War II, the House consolidated the jurisdictions of four committees to create the Committee on Public Works in 1946. The Committee on Public Buildings had been created in 1837 and was involved in overseeing the expansion of the Capitol in the 1850s and 1860s. The Committee on Rivers and Harbors was established in 1883. In 1913, the House created the Committee on Roads, and in 1916, it established the Committee on Flood Control. Prior to the committee restructuring, these four committees were comprised of 89 members and three delegates. Afterwards, the single committee had 27 members and no delegates. Renamed the Committee on Public Works and Transportation in 1975, it has continued to grow both in size and jurisdiction. It had more than 30 members by the 84th Congress, 50 in the 98th Congress, and is currently authorized at 69 members, the largest committee in the House. In 1995, during the 104th Congress, it became the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
In its first twenty years, the consolidated Committee had only three chairmen, even as party control shifted several times. The first chairman was George Dondero (R-MI), from 1947 to 1949, who passed the gavel to William Whittington (D-MS), who concentrated on water development and flood control. Charles Buckley (D-NY) assumed the chairmanship for one term, then Dondero returned in 1953. Dondero worked closely with Senator Alexander Wiley (R-WI), helping to draft and pass the St. Lawrence Seaway Act of 1954, often referred to as the Wiley-Dondero Act. Buckley returned to the chair in 1955, serving for the next decade. His greatest work was on the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, which authorized over 40,000 miles of limited-access highways; another act created the Highway Trust Fund, which avoided deficit spending on these highways by earmarking fuel and vehicle taxes for construction and maintenance. The Committee also worked with the Johnson Administration to develop the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which provided federal matching funds to cities for public transit projects. In the fall of 1966, Congress passed a law creating the Department of Transportation, as well as the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which was designed to reduce fatalities and provide safety standards for motor vehicles.
The Committee on Public Works, under Chairman John Blatnik (D-MN) 1971-1975, expanded its jurisdiction to include pollution in the nation’s waterways, leading to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. He also worked to expand the interstate system and urban mass transit, “Step by step, over the years, we have found ways to implement and enlarge upon the development of our transportation program for this nation.” In response to the oil crisis in 1973, the Committee worked to pass the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which set a nation-wide speed limit of 55 mph to conserve fuel. This was later raised to 65 mph in 1987, and in 1995 speed limit authority was returned to the states.
House reforms in the mid-1970s gave the Committee jurisdiction over aviation and air safety. In 1978, the Committee worked on the Airline Deregulation Act, a law which dramatically lowered air fares
and expanded competition within the industry. Increases in air travel soon led to overwhelming congestion at airports, as well as strained infrastructure, so in 1990 the Committee responded by imposing passenger fees for airport expansion and upgrades in air traffic control, along with mandating limits on aircraft noise.
Safety issues remained a top priority for the Committee under the chairmanship of James Howard (D-NJ), 1981-1988. In the early 1980s the Committee passed several measures to require child safety seats in cars, and also authorized grants to states which raised the drinking age to 21. Highway deaths dropped dramatically even as mileage traveled increased.
Surface transportation was a consistent interest of the Committee in the 1980s and 1990s, as it worked towards coordinating and consolidating the nation’s freight railways and rebuilding surface infrastructure. In July 1991, Surface and Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Norman Mineta (D-CA) introduced the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, a “revolutionary redirection” to create “a genuinely new transportation policy for America,” by building “our roads and bridges and transit systems into a comprehensive network,” by integrating rail, truck and ship transportation.
The midterm election of 1994 brought Republicans into the majority for the first time in forty years, but the Committee on Public Works and Transportation continued its long tradition of bipartisanship under chairmen Bud Shuster (R-PA), 1995-2001, and Don Young (R-AK), 2001-2007. The Committee crafted the National Highway System Designation Act in the fall of 1995, which placed 160,000 miles of heavily traveled roads into the National Highway System, returned speed limit authority to the states, and required tougher policies against drunk drivers; the bill passed the House 419-7. The Committee also moved further on deregulation, terminating the oldest federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and transferring its functions to the Department of Transportation, a bipartisan effort that also passed with over 400 votes. There was another strong bipartisan majority for the Wendell Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act, which authorized major funding for aviation improvement projects and “unlocked” the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Committee responded with a number of bills designed to increase air safety and security, stabilize the air industry by authorizing emergency funding, and creating the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). Two years later, the Committee celebrated the 100th anniversary of aviation.
In 2006, Democrats won majorities in both Houses and James Oberstar (D-MN) became chairman of the Committee in 2007. In March of that year, he introduced the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, the culmination of six years of bipartisan effort by Oberstar and Young. This authorized funding for a wide range of projects improving navigation, environmental protection, conservation, and particularly improvement of rivers and harbors to prevent flood damage. It passed the House by a bipartisan vote of 394-25, and while President George W. Bush vetoed the bill, both Houses quickly overrode the veto. As Ranking Member John Mica (R-FL) said, “There are not Republican projects, there are not Democrat projects; there are projects for the people that are important to their survival.” Chairman Oberstar concurred: “This is an investment in America, and Members of Congress representing their constituents, their businesses, their water resources, know what they need.” Passage of the WRDA bill in 2007 initiated a bipartisan re-commitment to authorizing these critical projects.
While Democrats won control of the Presidency in the 2008 election, Republicans regained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010 and held control through the 2018 midterm elections. John
Mica (R-FL) chaired the committee during the 112th Congress, and Bill Shuster (R-PA) chaired from the 113th through the 115th Congress. In that time, the Committee focused on facilitating the movement of people and goods throughout the country and around the globe. To achieve this central objective, the Committee produced legislation that provides responsible investment in all facets of America’s infrastructure network.
The Committee’s bipartisan work over this period included major legislation addressing every mode of transportation and programs that protect our infrastructure. In 2014, the Committee began the ongoing tradition of passing a bicameral and bipartisan WRDA bill each Congress. Under Chairman Bill Shuster’s leadership, the Committee developed and passed, on a bipartisan basis, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, signed into law in 2015, providing $305 billion for highway and transit projects. The FAST Act provided funding for a five-year period, the first transportation funding bill that lasted longer than two years since 2005. The Committee went on to reauthorize the Surface Transportation Board, Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board, and Federal Aviation Administration. Extending funding and authority of the FAA through 2023, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed into law on October 5, 2018, and was the first five-year reauthorization since 1982, providing stability for the agency. Over the course of the 113th through the 115th Congress, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed 245 bills, of which 126 became public law.
The midterm elections of 2018 saw Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the 116th Congress and continued to serve in this capacity through the 117th Congress. Under the leadership of Chairman DeFazio and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen (D-WA), the Committee conducted an investigation into the design, development and certification of the Boeing 737 MAX after two international Boeing 737 MAX crashes caused 346 total deaths. As a result of the investigation, Congress passed the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act signed into law in 2020, which strengthened the FAA’s oversight and aircraft certification process and ensures accountability and transparency.
Chair DeFazio and the Committee also played a key role in passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021 (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or BIL), legislation that provided $660 billion for transportation programs and projects over five years including over $400 billion in highway and major projects funding, $108 billion in transit funding, $102 billion for rail, $25 billion for airports, and $17 billion for ports. The BIL was the most robust and comprehensive infrastructure legislation passed in decades. Two-hundred and twenty years after Congress authorized the first federal public works project, the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure continues to develop, expand, and protect the nation’s transportation system. In the words of former Chairman Oberstar, “The Nation was founded along the waterways, the salt water coasts, the inland waterways. It has been our task to assure mobility, movement of people and goods through waterways, and then the highways, later the railways, and then the airways.” The Committee continues to be “the proud inheritor of a long tradition of work, of investment in America’s transportation needs,” carrying on its work as “the true builder of America.”
Based on “A Short History of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure” written in 2009 by Fred W. Beuttler, Ph.D., Deputy Historian of the House of Representatives; updated in 2022 by Vincent Gonzalez, Samuel Holliday, and Katherine Smokowicz.