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Buttigieg casts proposed transportation budget as down payment on infrastructure

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at Union Station in Washington in February.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at Union Station in Washington in February. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg presented his department’s budget to lawmakers Thursday as a miniature version of the administration’s mammoth infrastructure plan, with new money for transit, rail and racial justice.

Buttigieg cast the spending as a down payment toward the $2.25 trillion infrastructure package President Biden has outlined, calling the budget “a beginning on investments that we know we’ll need to make on a larger order to really meet the moment.”

The White House is also proposing a $3.2 billion increase in the Transportation Department’s discretionary budget to $25.6 billion, a boost of about 14 percent.

Since Biden announced his infrastructure proposal last month, Buttigieg has been on a roadshow to market it in television interviews and private talks with lawmakers. He is part of a team of five Cabinet members the White House has tapped for the job.

Buttigieg told members of the House Appropriations Committee’s transportation panel on Thursday that the proposal would give the nation an opportunity to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The American Jobs Plan will modernize how we travel, how we move goods, and how we live,” he said. “It will make transformative investments, turning shovel-worthy ideas into shovel-ready projects, and seeing them to completion.”

Here’s what’s in Biden’s budget proposal

Republicans remain cool to the president’s approach despite efforts to build bipartisan support. Several members of the committee questioned Buttigieg on the scope of the plan and whether it would centralize too much spending power in Washington.

“These numbers are big,” said Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) “These budgets that we’re talking about are large. I think we’ve become a little numb to units of dollars that start with Ts.”

Before the hearing, a group of Senate Republicans held a news conference to say they were open to working with Democrats on infrastructure, but roundly criticized the breadth of the White House proposal. Several senators said they could support spending on transportation networks, drinking water and broadband — what they called “core infrastructure.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), her party’s leader on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she expected Republicans to set out their own vision as a starting point for negotiations with Biden.

“You heard our desire for something robust,” Capito said. “We understand it is a job creator and we understand we’re behind.”

On Monday, Biden said he was open to negotiating and hosted a bipartisan group of lawmakers for talks on the plan.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations sought to craft major infrastructure packages without success. Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), the appropriations panel’s chairman, asked Buttigieg why the current administration expects things to be different this time.

“This has been a decade-long, decade-plus, struggle to get this investment going,” Price said. “What is new now?”

Buttigieg said that the needs for new spending are clear, that there is bipartisan interest despite differences in the approach and that the economic situation presents an opportunity.

White House plan calls for large expansion of federal government’s role in transportation

The department’s annual budget proposal includes only a slice of the agency’s funding, with much of it coming from the Highway Trust Fund and used to back state and local transportation projects. But within those confines, the administration is proposing additional funds for rail and transit.

Buttigieg said that despite uncertainty about what daily routines will look like after the pandemic, it would be important to improve the quality of transit service to boost economic opportunities in struggling communities and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“As we look to the future, we’re going to continue to see a need for Americans to have many options in terms of how they get to work, how they get to school, how they get around their community,” Buttigieg said.

The administration is proposing to fund its infrastructure package by increasing the corporate tax rate, which congressional Republicans cut in 2017. Capito said that she continued to support that tax cut and that raising the rate would cross “a nonnegotiable red line.”

Historically, much federal transportation spending has been funded using the gas tax. But the rate has not been raised since 1993, leaving inflation and gains in fuel efficiency to eat into its spending power.

On Tuesday, an array of transportation industry groups — including those representing state transportation officials, road-building companies and transit agencies — wrote to leaders of congressional committees that set transportation policy, urging them to support a nationwide fee on the number of miles people drive.

“American ingenuity and innovation stand ready to meet these challenges,” the groups wrote. “Congress has an extraordinary opportunity to create and test a much-needed long-term replacement for the user fees that we currently rely on to build our roads and bridges.”