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House passes $759B public works bill with elements of Biden plan

Contains money for electric vehicle charging, reducing carbon pollution and mitigating effects of extreme weather

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., joined by other House Democrats, speaks last month during a news conference on the surface transportation, wastewater and drinking water bill.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., joined by other House Democrats, speaks last month during a news conference on the surface transportation, wastewater and drinking water bill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Thursday passed a more than $759 billion surface transportation, wastewater and drinking water reauthorization on a largely party-line vote, as Democrats laid out their vision of what they hope will be a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s key domestic priority.

The bill’s passage, in a 221-201 vote, marks the start of the House’s 4th of July recess as well as the next step in what will likely be months of debate aimed at fleshing out what Biden originally envisioned to be a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

Two Republicans, Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, supported the bill. No Democrats opposed it.

Amendments added $44 billion in spending to what had been a $715 billion bill, raising its topline to $759 billion, according to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff.

The overall House bill addresses two Biden priorities: climate change and racial equity. It would authorize $4 billion for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, dedicate $8.3 billion for reducing carbon pollution, and authorize $6.2 billion for mitigation and resiliency improvements aimed at making infrastructure resistant to extreme weather events.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., has emphasized that the House needed to pass a “transformative” bill that prioritizes fixing highways over building new ones, and makes deep and substantive investments into transit and rail in order to help address climate change.

“Some ask, why address it in the transportation bill?” DeFazio asked during floor debate Wednesday. “Well, because the transportation sector is the single largest carbon emitter in the United States of America and it would be foolish and irresponsible to continue pouring taxpayer money into the old way of thinking that we must merely expand highways.”

He said the U.S. has built more than 35,000 lane miles in the last 25 years, while the cost of congestion and delay has gone up six times.

“Should we keep doing that?” he said, arguing that expanding highways only creates more demand and more congestion. “No. It’s not working.”

The House bill would also emphasize racial equity, putting $3 billion into a program aimed at tearing down or modifying bridges or overpasses that separated Black and brown communities from the rest of their cities.

The bill also would restore earmarks for the first time since 2005, with the committee including 1,473 earmarks totaling nearly $5.7 billion.

DeFazio has repeatedly encouraged Biden and the Senate to consider the legislative language from his bill — which closely mirrors one that passed the House last year but that stalled in the Senate — as they hash out the details of a bipartisan framework agreed to by Biden and a group of Senate negotiators that includes $579 billion in new spending over five years.

Separately, Senate Democrats and Biden are considering using the budget reconciliation process to push through a separate set of Biden’s more partisan priorities.

Regardless of the larger negotiations, though, the surface transportation bill is considered a must-pass; the current highway law expires at the end of September.

Republicans criticized the House bill as wasteful, forced through without their input, and ignorant of both rural areas and the need for permitting changes that would speed construction.

“This bill does not address America’s needs and in fact will make our lives even more expensive,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., “This bill neglects to fix the bureaucracy that makes the United States one of the most difficult places in the world to build infrastructure.”

Big government

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill “significantly increases the size of government,” creating 41 new programs, and emphasized transit and repair at the expense of communities that need new roads.

“This bill ties the hands of states that need to build new roads and new capacity, even if that’s their most critical need,” he said.

DeFazio has pitched his bill as within “shouting distance” of the numbers reached by Senate negotiators, but because the Senate framework breaks down only new spending and the House bill includes overall funding including the amount currently spent, it’s been hard to compare the two.

Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation said it’s unclear how both parties are counting the baseline, or what is currently being spent on the projects, to compare the different proposals.

To compare the bills, Davis used the amount appropriated for the programs in fiscal 2021, then multiplied it by five to represent the life of the bill. By that measure, he said, the House would spend $334.3 billion on roads, bridges and megaprojects compared to the $355.5 billion called for in the bipartisan framework.

Transit, meanwhile, would receive $108.6 billion in the House bill and $113.1 billion in the bipartisan framework, while intercity rail would receive $94.6 billion in the House and $80.4 billion in the negotiators’ framework.

The bill also includes a $54.4 billion measure authorizing wastewater spending and would spend $117.5 billion on drinking water. The wastewater legislation would provide the first-ever reauthorization of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which was created in 1987.

While the bill advanced by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would have extended the federal gas tax, the bill on the floor does not, leaving an opening for the House Ways and Means Committee, which originates all revenue provisions, to extend it and ensure it has a voice in larger infrastructure legislation.

The House considered nearly 150 amendments to the bill, lumping them into five en bloc votes. It approved an amendment by Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, that would allow states to conduct a review of their high occupancy vehicle routes 10 years after construction, removing such a route and repaying any associated funds if necessary. The vote on that measure was 230-178.

The House voted 220-200 to approve an amendment introduced by Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., requiring any wastewater infrastructure paid for using the Clean Water State Revolving Fund or other Clean Water Act grant programs to first undergo a climate resiliency assessment to ensure that such infrastructure is designed and built to withstand the impacts of climate change.

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