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Transit, rail funding seen as vulnerable to reconciliation cuts

Infrastructure bill seen as vehicle for funding

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the inclusion of rail and transit funding in the infrastructure bill will make it harder to provide "robust" funding in the reconciliation bill.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the inclusion of rail and transit funding in the infrastructure bill will make it harder to provide "robust" funding in the reconciliation bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call pool photo)

As Democrats work to reduce the $3.5 trillion topline of their reconciliation measure, transportation analysts worry dollars for transit and high speed rail will be a target.

The House budget reconciliation measure allocated $57.3 billion to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, including $10 billion for transit and $10 billion for high-speed rail. 

But the rub is this: The House is also considering a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that included $550 billion in new spending for transportation and infrastructure.

When Congress is forced to pare programs to meet a new topline, critics can argue that transportation already got its slice of the pie.

“Certainly the argument that it had some funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill will make it harder for there to be robust funding,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said last week about transit and high-speed rail funding. 

Lawmakers are trying to reduce the original topline number after Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona balked at the $3.5 trillion figure, sending the Biden administration, Democratic congressional leadership and the two centrist senators into a flurry of negotiations.

The two Democrats from red states hold outsize sway because the party needs every member of its Senate conference to vote for the measure to pass the bill with even a simple majority under the reconciliation process.

Progressive Democrats in the House, meanwhile, have vowed not to back the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Congress has passed the larger reconciliation bill. That infrastructure bill, which the Senate passed Aug. 10, includes $110 billion in new spending for roads, bridges and major projects, as well as $39 billion in new spending for transit and $66 billion for rail. 

The standoff has put both pieces of Biden’s domestic agenda on hold and may endanger the transportation elements of the larger reconciliation measure, including — in addition to the $10 billion each for transit and high-speed rail — $4 billion for a program aimed at removing infrastructure that separated Black and brown communities from cities and $4 billion for a greenhouse gas emission reduction program for highways.

Transit groups argue the original bipartisan plan included $48.5 billion for transit and was already reduced by $10 billion in the final bipartisan agreement. Reconciliation, they say, offered an opportunity to restore those funds.

Beth Osborne, director of the pro-transit Transportation for America, said the decision to reduce the original $48.5 billion agreement was tantamount to the lawmakers “abandoning their own deal for no reason.”

She said while all programs in reconciliation are at risk because of the large cuts, “considering the Senate didn’t stand by their own announced bipartisan commitment to transit in the infrastructure bill, we are going to have to push them very hard to stand by programs in reconciliation that impact transit service for those that rely on it.”

But transit has already become contentious in reconciliation.

In a letter last month to Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., the panel’s ranking member, said the transit allocation violated an agreement not to “double-dip” or spend money on programs that already benefited from the bipartisan infrastructure agreement. 

Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said the $10 billion for transit was for a new program aimed at linking transit to affordable housing through a new grant program. “It really is unique and different,” he said.

Still, in an interview Thursday, Brown downplayed the impact of potential cuts to transit, suggesting the money in the infrastructure bill represented the bulk of what transit systems need.

“The transit money is overwhelmingly coming from the bipartisan bill,” he said. “No matter what we do on that, that’s not a major hit compared to the tens of billions we put in in infrastructure.” 

Reconciliation, said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., could “add” to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. While those dollars “would be welcomed,” he said, the bipartisan bill is “the foundational element” of the nation’s investment in infrastructure.

Transportation groups also worry high-speed rail will become a target.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said that while the $10 billion allocated isn’t enough to launch a comprehensive high-speed rail program, it’s an important commitment to moving forward with one of Biden’s priorities.

“That money is desperately needed to jump-start those kinds of efforts,” he said. “But from a more 50,000-foot level, it was a policy endorsement of an approach we really have to embrace in this country.”

He said he’s fearful that potential cuts to reconciliation will have a sweeping impact on Biden’s domestic policy priorities. 

“When you go from $3.5 to $1.9 or whatever figure is floating around, you don’t just do the low hanging fruit,” he said. “You’ve gotta go pretty far up the tree.”

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the need to cut money from the reconciliation measure means “everything could be on the table.” 

Referring to transportation items, he said, “they are, relatively speaking to the bill, so small that cutting them is going to barely get you closer while absolutely angering constituencies on both sides of the aisle.” 

“There are hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending across well over 100 different authorized programs,” he said. “That’s not the place to come up with easy cuts.”

Lindsey McPherson and Caitlin Reilly contributed to this report.

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