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Sources: House Democrats plan Wednesday rollout of highway bill

Measure is expected to closely mirror framework offered by Democrats in January, including climate resilience provisions

Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will release text of a highway bill Wednesday morning, according to people who have been in contact with the panel.

The bill, which committee staff are scheduled to brief stakeholders on later Tuesday, is expected to closely mirror a framework introduced by the committee in January, but will delay a dramatic policy overhaul for a year, focusing the first year primarily on spending because of the coronavirus. 

Because the next pro forma House session is not until Thursday, the bill won’t be formally introduced until then. However, the text is expected to be available as soon as Wednesday morning, according to those briefed on the process. The sources declined to be named because they were discussing nonpublic timing plans. 

The framework introduced in January would invest $319 billion for highways and bridges over a five-year period, adding $105 billion for transit, $55 billion for rail and $10 billion for safety. It was not clear Tuesday whether the price tags would change slightly with the final bill.

A bill approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last July included a climate title, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon has emphasized that the overall bill would address resiliency and climate. One provision would reward states for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, pinning federal dollars on a state’s progress.

DeFazio has also made it clear that he wants to fix existing highways before building new ones. 

Democrats have been angling to introduce a highway bill since the beginning of the year but the pandemic has shifted priorities. In April, Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested using an infrastructure bill to help boost the pandemic-ravaged economy, but she later prioritized assisting states and providing adequate small business loans first. 

Pelosi has said she envisions a grand infrastructure package that would spend more than $760 billion over five years, including funds for school construction and broadband access. But the highway bill presents an immediate need; the current funding authorization expires at the end of September.

Wednesday’s bill introduction would represent the most significant movement on a highway bill since the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced its five-year, $287 billion highway bill. 

‘Laundry list’

Even before the timing of the House bill was certain, Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, defended his chamber’s approach, saying it was the only bipartisan bill out there.

“Instead of working on bipartisan infrastructure solutions with House Republicans, House Democrats seem focused on writing a second ‘Green New Deal,’” the Wyoming Republican wrote in a Fox News op-ed published Monday. 

He criticized the Democrats’ framework introduced in January as “a laundry list of liberal priorities,” and questioned a plan to invest more than $100 billion in public transit, saying Americans will rely more on cars, roads and bridges as the pandemic continues. 

“Infrastructure should be bipartisan,” he wrote. “The Senate is ready to pass major legislation. The Democrat-led House of Representatives is nowhere close.”

The  Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on infrastructure as an economic stimulus.

Another key sticking point will be how to pay for any highway bill. 

DeFazio as well as groups such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have advocated an increase in the federal gas tax while others, such as Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, have pushed for a shift to an alternative that would charge drivers based on vehicle miles traveled.

President Donald Trump, who has suggested a $2 trillion infrastructure investment, has pushed for taking advantage of low interest rates to borrow money to rebuild.

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