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New Senate highway bill may be part of something bigger

It may become a cornerstone of Biden’s infrastructure proposal

At first glance, the 549-page, $303.5 billion bipartisan highway bill that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will mark up Wednesday appears to be a direct descendant of the bill the committee approved in 2019.

Both included climate titles. Both emphasize resilience — 57 mentions in the 2019 bill and 75 in the newest iteration. Both include a new grant program promoting resilient infrastructure. Both are bipartisan. 

The difference is that this year, with a renewed focus on infrastructure, the bill, or some version of it, may become a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal and one of the few bright spots of bipartisanship in what has become an increasingly tense process. 

And that worries environmental groups, who say the bill doesn’t push hard enough to embrace the sweeping, transformative measures Biden has called for to combat climate change.

“There’s progress,” said Matthew Casale, Environment Campaigns Director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group and its U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “A bipartisan proposal with a climate title is a good thing. Does it need to ultimately be stronger? Yeah, of course.”  

Casale said while the bill increases funding for highways, it does not include language specifying that states should use the money to repair existing systems — “fix-it first” — before building new highways.

“The EPW bill is a step forward, but doesn’t meet the moment,” said Deron Lovaas, senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Lovaas added that while the electrification and clean transportation investments are “an important down payment” on Biden’s plan, “we must remember that building so many more highways pollutes more when we should be focusing on the huge backlog in road and bridge repairs already needed across America.”

The bill, which leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee released Saturday, includes a new grant program, providing $500 million a year to install electric vehicle charging stations over five years. That figure is more modest than the $15 billion Biden proposes for EV charging stations over eight years, but represents a step up from the original Republican Senate framework, which did not appear to include funding for such stations. It’s unclear whether the GOP counteroffer to Biden’s infrastructure plan included additional funding.

The Senate plan also includes $1.4 billion for a new formula and competitive grant program aimed at creating more climate-resilient infrastructure, $50 million a year for the bill’s five years to reduce truck emissions at ports; and $100 million a year to create a Transportation Resilience and Adaptation Center of Excellence to study resilient infrastructure. 

Equity

It has proposals linked to Biden’s racial equity proposals as well, including a new $100 million a year grant program that would allow communities to study the impact of removing, retrofitting or mitigating infrastructure that has disconnected traditionally Black or brown neighborhoods from the greater community. Biden proposed $20 billion over eight years in his infrastructure plan to meet the same goal. 

While Casale offered tentative praise, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials lauded the bill, with AASHTO executive director Jim Tymon saying it “provides much-needed program stability through its five-year funding platform.”

While Environment and Public Works has no jurisdiction over how the bill will be paid for — that falls under the Senate Finance Committee — the bill tries to implement policy aimed at figuring out how to fix the increasingly inadequate Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for through federal gas taxes.

While the 2015 highway law created a small pilot program aimed at exploring alternatives to the gas tax, the new Senate bill would expand that program from strictly state DOTs to include local governments or metropolitan planning organizations. It also proposes the creation of a pilot program specifically targeted at a mileage-based user fee to raise revenue for the trust fund in the future. 

The gas tax has not been increased since 1993 and is heading toward obsolescence as the Biden administration pursues policies aimed at replacing gas-powered cars with electric vehicles, and there’s little political will — particularly among the Biden administration, which vowed not to raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year — to increase the gas tax. 

The bill, which funds highways, roads and bridges, does not address rail or transit, which are under the jurisdiction of the Senate committees on Commerce, Science and Transportation and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, respectively. Those committees have yet to take up their portions of the measure. 

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But it marks a moment of bipartisan comity as the White House and Senate Republicans remain at an impasse over the scope and cost of Biden’s infrastructure plan, which was originally priced at about $2.25 trillion but that Biden lowered to $1.7 trillion Friday in an attempt to reach a compromise with Senate Republicans.

In the House, the highway bill markup is still further out, with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., simply saying it will happen “soon.” That bill has $14.9 billion in earmarks; part of the delay is that committee staff must evaluate the earmarks before moving forward with a markup.

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