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House Democrats offer five-year, $547 billion highway bill

Plan focuses on fixing existing roads and bridges before building new ones, House chair says

The interchange of I-66, left to right, and I-495, is seen in Virginia on descent to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on November 4, 2020.
The interchange of I-66, left to right, and I-495, is seen in Virginia on descent to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on November 4, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats on Friday introduced a five-year, $547 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill that they hope will comprise a key part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal.

The plan, which is scheduled for markup on June 9, is $53 billion higher than last year’s $494 billion House highway bill and includes $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety; $109 billion for transit; and $95 billion for freight and passenger rail. The House passed that bill, but the Senate took no action.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said the bill would include language prioritizing a fix-it-first approach that would invest in current roads and bridges before building new ones. In a release, he said the bill will seize “this once-in-a-generation opportunity to move our transportation planning out of the 1950s and toward our clean energy future.”

According to a fact sheet and section-by-section summary, the bill would focus $116 billion of highway formula programs on repair or operational improvements to existing roads and bridges. It would also work to reduce carbon emissions by investing in passenger rail, public transit, cycling and walking infrastructure.

Its release comes just weeks after the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a five-year $312.4 billion plan on May 26.

[New Senate highway bill may be part of something bigger]

But that plan didn’t include money for rail, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, or transit, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Neither of those Senate committees has taken up its part of the bill.

Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, meanwhile, on May 18 introduced their own bill, which would authorize $400 billion over five years. That bill did not include passenger rail, water, aviation or broadband. It includes long-held Republican priorities such as streamlining the regulatory process to speed up projects and reduce costs and focuses heavily on rural communities.

Republicans said they were shut out of the Democrats’ work on the proposal.

“Republican efforts to move toward a compromise were not only unreciprocated, it became apparent the majority was more interested in moving further to the left compared to last year’s bill — not toward any middle ground,” a GOP committee aide said.

Money for climate change

The House Democrats’ bill would invest $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Biden’s infrastructure proposal would invest $15 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure over eight years, and the Senate highway bill would spend $2.5 billion over five years.

The House bill would dedicate $8.3 billion for reducing carbon pollution, with an additional $6.2 billion for mitigation and resiliency improvements aimed at building infrastructure resistant to extreme weather events.

[Labor unions have a new point man on infrastructure]

The bill also calls for investing $3 billion into a program aimed at tearing down or modifying bridges or overpasses that separated Black and brown communities from their cities. That proposal would receive $20 billion over eight years in Biden’s plan and $500 million over five years in the Senate bill.

The House legislation also would provide $13 billion for projects of national or regional significance such as large highway, bridge, transit, rail and freight projects. By contrast, Biden’s plan would invest $44 billion in projects it deems “transformational.”

The bill would triple funding for Amtrak, to $32 billion from current authorized levels, providing money for corridor planning and development of high-speed rail.

[Amtrak’s proposed $80 billion windfall: Too much or too little?]

It would increase funding for rural transit by more than 50 percent in the first year, setting aside $50 million a year for transit in rural communities with persistent poverty. It also would create a reduced-fare pilot program aimed at providing access to transit for low-income riders and streamline the transit-related Capital Investment Grant program in hopes of speeding project delivery by reducing red tape.

Unlike the Senate bill, the House bill would ultimately include earmarks, but the committee said a revised text that will include those earmarks will be released closer to the scheduled markup.

Regardless of the fate of Biden’s larger infrastructure plan, the highway bill is considered a must-pass measure. The current law, a one-year extension of the 2015 law, expires at the end of September.

Biden’s original infrastructure framework, estimated at more than $2 trillion, would provide $115 billion in new spending on highways, roads and bridges over eight years, on top of money currently authorized. He calls for $85 billion in new spending on transit and $80 billion in new spending for freight and passenger rail.

But the Biden plan also includes money for drinking and wastewater, airports and broadband, as well as veterans hospitals, schools, day care and $400 billion for home and community-based care for the elderly and disabled.

Biden is currently in negotiations with Senate Republicans, whose most recent $928 billion counteroffer would spend $257 billion above the baseline, a measure of spending to sustain current federal infrastructure. The Senate proposal includes $98 billion for transit over eight years, $506 billion for roads and bridges, and $46 billion for freight and passenger rail.

Biden and Senate Republicans plan to speak on Friday in yet another round of negotiations.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the current highway law authorizes about $45 billion annually for highways and $12.3 billion for transit — a total of some $286.5 billion over five years.

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