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House Democrats unveil $500 billion transportation package with focus on buses, rail and the environment

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shows a note to Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) during a news conference Jan. 29 on Capitol Hill. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a $500 billion transportation bill that outlines a five-year plan for how Americans will get around, with a new emphasis on transit and railroads and seeking to blunt the environmental cost of travel.

The bill calls for across-the-board increases in spending on highways and public transportation. Roads would continue to see the lion’s share of the money — some $300 billion. But the bill also provides $165 billion in support for buses, subways and rails, significantly more than the last transportation package passed in 2015.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House transportation committee and the chief architect of the legislation, said the proposal would move the nation’s infrastructure beyond a blueprint from the 1950s and toward a more environmentally sustainable future.

“It’s really time to move America to the 21st century in terms of its investment and vision for the transportation future of our nation,” DeFazio told reporters during a conference call. “We’ve been for too long living off the legacy of the Eisenhower era.”

In addition to new funding, the legislation would make major changes to national transportation policy: It would require the government to prioritize fixing existing roads and bridges over building new ones, make states with the deadliest roads for cyclists and pedestrians spend money to tackle the problem and incentivize states to spend money on projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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But for all its ambition, the bill will be taken up in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused transit ridership to plummet and left state transportation departments struggling with lost gas tax revenue. Recognizing that reality, the bill would seek to provide a boost to the finances of transportation networks for a year and delay the policy changes until October 2021.

There has been bipartisan interest in pumping money into the country’s infrastructure since the beginning of the Trump administration, with Democrats and Republicans seeing opportunities to boost economic growth and tackle climate change. But a deal has never been struck, not least because there’s little agreement on how to pay for such a package.

Much of the federal government’s transportation spending is funded by an 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline. That tax was last increased in 1993, so it stretches less far in today’s dollars once inflation is taken into account, and Congress has had to use other tax receipts to make up the difference.

Raising the tax would be one simple, if politically tricky, way to raise more money. But lawmakers have also begun exploring a system that would charge drivers by the mile, allowing the government to raise more money from drivers of electric cars and hybrids. The bill calls for a national pilot program to test that idea, known as vehicle miles traveled or VMT.

In the meantime, DeFazio said he would support borrowing money and deferring payments on the principal for several years, by which time a VMT system might be ready to roll out.

“I believe we could justify borrowing the needed funds,” at the current low rates, he said. But he noted the decision was up to the Democrats’ leaders in the House and the taxation committee.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the tax committee, said he was committed to moving an infrastructure package forward.

“Congress and the administration are going to need to work together on pay-for possibilities in the coming weeks,” Neal spokeswoman Erin Hatch said.

While the House legislation sets out Democrats’ vision, it must compete with a proposal that began to move through the Senate last year with bipartisan support, and another the Trump administration is expected to release in coming weeks.

Lawmakers face a deadline: The 2015 law expires Sept. 30. Congress could opt for a short-term extension, but DeFazio said he would prefer not to do so.

Republican leaders on the House Transportation Committee were quick to criticize the bill as a left-wing wish list that they had no hand in drafting.

“Today’s partisan bill lacks critical flexibility for the states, its outsized funding increases for urban areas will leave rural America even further behind, and numerous new green mandates and extreme progressive goals are woven throughout the fabric of new and existing core programs,” Reps. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Eric A. “Rick” Crawford (R-Ark.) said in a joint statement.

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Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in an interview with The Washington Post last week that the Trump administration plans to release its own proposal soon. She acknowledged the challenge of getting the two parties and the House and Senate moving in the same direction.

“Right now, in the short term, there does not seem to be bicameral agreement on how to handle infrastructure,” Chao said.

DeFazio’s office said the committee will begin considering its bill at a June 17 work session, giving Republicans time to develop amendments. The House as a whole could then begin considering the bill at the start of July.

State transportation departments and transit agencies are reeling from the impacts of the coronavirus. Stay-at-home orders imposed by governors are forecast to leave states needing some $50 billion in aid from the federal government, according to an analysis by an organization that represents the departments.

The Republican leaders on the transportation committee warned that the far-reaching policy changes the legislation calls for were ill-timed, requiring state leaders to rethink their operations.

“We believe a rapid seismic shift in our transportation programs will add to the already considerable uncertainty in an industry struggling for its survival,” they said in their statement.