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Pelosi revives ambitious infrastructure bill for next stimulus

Proposal would include $329 billion for highways and bridges, $10 billion for community health centers

The checks from the last coronavirus stimulus bill aren’t even in the mail, but the jockeying for the next bill has already begun.

President Donald Trump’s Tuesday tweet announcing that he wanted a $2 trillion infrastructure investment as part of phase four of the federal response to the coronavirus epidemic has spurred stakeholders to line up for a place in the next proposal and inspired Democrats on Wednesday to dust off the ambitious five-year, $760 billion infrastructure plan they unveiled in January.

The Democrats’ bill would invest $329 billion for highways and bridges and aim to increase the availability of electric-vehicle charging stations and alternative fueling options. It would also include $105 billion for transit, $55 billion for rail, $30 billion for airports, $50.5 billion for wastewater and $86 billion to expand broadband. It also proposes $10 billion for community health centers, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a press call Wednesday.

She said the bill would also likely include investments in school construction and housing. 

Democratic lawmakers on the call argued that investing in infrastructure would be an ideal way to build an economy virtually shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. 

They’d been in talks with Trump through last May about a comprehensive infrastructure plan, but talks broke down when Trump, during a White House meeting with Pelosi, demanded she stop “phony investigations” of him.

In November, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., announced he’d push for a large-scale proposal regardless of White House support. 

Despite seemingly countless “infrastructure weeks,” any movement on an infrastructure bill has eluded lawmakers since last July, when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced a five-year, $287 billion highway bill. The House proposal meanwhile includes money for highways, but also for broadband, wastewater, drinking water and utilities.

The largest hangup has not been whether to invest in infrastructure — both parties say it’s necessary — but how to pay for it. 

Lawmakers like DeFazio have pushed for an increase in the federal gas tax while others, such as Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on House Transportation and Infrastructure, have pushed for a shift to an alternative that would charge drivers based on vehicles miles traveled.

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But the urgency of the pandemic, which spurred lawmakers to authorize $2 trillion last week alone, as well as Trump’s tweet Monday have effectively restarted the conversation.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the Democrats’ plan harkens back to a time when people left their houses and when roads and airports were packed.

He questioned how the pandemic would affect travel behavior and infrastructure demands long term.

“I don’t think it’s particularly serious,” he said of the Democrats’ proposal. “Especially since they didn’t even bother to try to tie it into how it might help with the coronavirus that caused the problem.”

He said Congress should instead consider a short-term extension of the current highway bill, which expires in September, and see how the pandemic plays out, focusing resources on needs instead.

“An infrastructure stimulus right now doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

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