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Democrats offer $494 billion transport bill targeting economy, climate

Bill includes provisions to support states struggling in the pandemic-driven downturn and to reduce carbon emissions

A sign calling for essential travel only appeared along I-95 in Maryland.
A sign calling for essential travel only appeared along I-95 in Maryland. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

A five-year, $494 billion surface transportation bill unveiled Wednesday by Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aims to inject a shot of money to states and cities struggling from the coronavirus before addressing another existential crisis: climate change.

The bill, according to a committee summary, would require the Department of Transportation to create greenhouse gas reduction measures and set goals for states to meet. The legislation would provide $8.35 billion to help states achieve their goals. Low-performing states would be required to invest 10 percent of their federal surface transportation funds in additional projects to cut emissions.

The bill also would authorize $6.25 billion to pay for resilient infrastructure that could withstand major weather events caused by climate change. It would require states and cities to develop an infrastructure vulnerability assessment to guide investments under the program. 

It would provide $350 million per year in grants to create electric vehicle charging and hydrogen fueling stations.

[McConnell nixes infrastructure in next economic recovery bill]

And it calls for investments in rail, authorizing $60 billion to address a maintenance backlog in rail infrastructure, establishing new intercity passenger rail routes and expanding commuter rail. That would include $29.3 billion over five years for Amtrak — more than three times the current level. 

But before implementing those policies, the bill would address the current pandemic, providing $83.1 billion in fiscal year 2021 to help save state and local transportation agencies crippled by the pandemic. 

It would briefly eliminate the state-federal match, ensuring that all federal dollars offered in 2021 would be offered at 100 percent federal share. And the bill would allow state and local governments to use $22 billion of that  money for salaries and operating expenses.

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By changing the matching formulas, the bill mirrors elements of one passed by the House on May 15. That bill, which has not advanced in the Senate, would allocate $15 billion for highway spending but would increase the federal share for highway projects to 100 percent. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in early May asked for $50 billion in direct emergency assistance to state departments of transportation. 

In a statement, committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., called the legislation a “transformational bill that will catapult our country into a new era of how we plan, build, and improve U.S. infrastructure.”

Republicans did not share that sentiment.

In a joint statement, ranking Republican Sam Graves of Missouri, Subcommittee on Highways and Transit ranking member Rodney Davis of Illinois and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials ranking member Rick Crawford of Arkansas said they and other Republicans on the committee were not involved in the development of the bill.

The criticized the bill as lacking flexibility for states and giving “outsized” funding to urban areas at the expense of rural communities.

“Although today’s bill does not reflect our input, Committee Republicans will continue to work with the Senate, stakeholders, and any Member of both parties to ensure our priorities are addressed as the legislative process moves forward,” the trio said.

The committee has scheduled a June 17 markup of the bill.

46 percent boost

In all, the bill would offer surface transportation programs $494 billion over five years, including $411 billion over five years out of the Highway Trust Fund for highway, transit, safety and research programs, representing a 46 percent increase over current investment levels, according to documents released by the committee. 

Of that $494 billion, $319 billion would go to highways, $105 billion to transit, $4.6 billion for highway safety, $5.3 billion for motor carrier safety and $60 billion for rail.

The figures included in the bill released Wednesday closely mirror elements of a comprehensive $760 billion infrastructure framework first floated by House Democrats in January, though it infuses $5 billion more for rail.

The bill also emphasizes fixing before building, requiring National Highway Performance Program funds to focus on maintenance and operational improvements to existing facilities before building new highway capacity. It would require states to spend 20 percent of their NHPP and Surface Transportation Program dollars on bridge repair and rehabilitation projects — about $28 billion in fiscal years 2022 through 2025.

It would provide grants to address rural roads and urban gridlock. Pedestrian and bicycle networks would get $250 million as would construction and improvement of truck parking facilities. 

Because the next pro forma House session is not until Thursday, the bill won’t be formally introduced until then.

The introduction of the House bill is the first significant movement since last July, when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved its own five year, $287 billion highway bill.

The current funding authorization expires at the end of September.

‘Green New Deal’

Even before the timing of the House bill was certain, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican chairman of Senate Environment and Public Works, defended the Senate’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,’” Barrasso wrote in a Fox News op-ed published Monday.

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

The House Transportation and Infrastructure bill did not include a method of paying for the bill, a key sticking point that neither chamber  has been able to address.

DeFazio and 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 Graves, have pushed for a shift to an alternative that would charge drivers based on vehicle miles traveled.

DeFazio, who has said he supports a vehicle miles traveled tax, or VMT, but does not believe it’s ready for national deployment, would establish a national VMT pilot program in the bill. The bill would nearly double funding for VMT pilots across the country in an effort to encourage states to implement such programs.

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