Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would seek to grow the economy and reduce the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the size of the package was still under discussion.
The president was joined by Vice President Harris and Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee; Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the transportation subcommittee chairman; along with Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who are senior GOP members of the committee. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined by video because he is isolating after a coronavirus exposure.
“There’s a lot we have to do,” Biden said. “And I could think of no better group of people to start off with to try to see if we can come to some kind of generic consensus about how to begin.”
The White House said afterward that the group reached a “mutual understanding” that new infrastructure needs to be built in cities and rural areas alike. More meetings with members of Congress are planned.
While there has long been bipartisan support for spending on highways, bridges and other transportation projects, there are significant fault lines, and no consensus on a way forward emerged during Donald Trump’s administration. The term “infrastructure week” became a joke in Washington, one that Buttigieg has said he doesn’t want the new administration to also be the brunt of.
Biden framed the issue as being partly about the nation’s global competitiveness, saying that China is advancing high-speed-rail projects and that if the United States does not get moving, “they’re going to eat our lunch.”
Democrats have shown significantly more interest in using infrastructure spending to meet environmental and racial-justice goals. And their constituents, clustered in urban areas, stand to gain more directly from investment in transit. Republicans wrote off a House bill last year that put those issues at the foreground.
But in the Senate, the Public Works Committee unanimously adopted a five-year highways package in 2019. The bill boosted overall highway spending by more than a quarter, while dedicating some $10 billion to battling climate change and seeking to streamline the approval process for projects. Cardin said in an interview Thursday that the legislation would be the starting point for the new round of discussions.
“All four of us indicated that we wanted to work together,” Cardin said, describing the meeting as cordial and optimistic.
Capito said the meeting was productive, adding that working on a bipartisan bill is her top priority.
“We should be forward-leaning when it comes to tackling the transportation needs of today and tomorrow in a way that works for all communities, instead of a one-sized-fits-all approach,” she said in a statement.
Responsibility for transportation policy is fractured in the Senate, with the Banking Committee in charge of transit issues. The committee didn’t produce a transit bill to match the highway package during the last round of negotiations.
The Finance Committee, meanwhile, is responsible for funding transportation, and determining how to pay for increased spending has proved to be another tricky issue. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and inflation and improvements in fuel economy have eaten away much of its purchasing power.
The Biden administration has said it does not support an increase in the gas tax. But Cardin said the Republicans in the meeting Thursday indicated that retaining a connection between transportation revenue and spending would help attract support from their colleagues.
Cardin said he raised the idea of using a coronavirus recovery measure to get started on infrastructure spending without having “to confront the revenue issue.”
A current $1.9 trillion pandemic relief measure advancing through Congress on a partisan basis includes tens of billions of dollars in emergency aid to transit agencies, Amtrak, airlines and small aerospace firms to protect jobs and maintain service. Biden plans to outline a second package with longer-term goals in the coming weeks.
In addition, the current federal surface transportation legislation expires in the fall. An old policy was extended for a year after lawmakers couldn’t agree on a long-term solution in 2020. Carper said in a statement that passing a new bill — such measures typically run for five years — is the way to deliver on the administration’s priorities.
“A surface transportation reauthorization bill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs to strengthen our economy and move us to a cleaner, safer future,” he said. “I’m currently putting together a bipartisan bill that does just that, and I’m glad it’s at the top of the administration’s agenda.”