House Democrats unveiled the latest plan for tackling the nation’s aging infrastructure on Friday, proposing a $547 billion transportation funding bill that seeks to ramp up spending on rail and transit while encouraging states to repair existing roads rather than build new ones.
Beyond authorizing federal spending, the five-year bill seeks to overhaul rules on how states and other transportation agencies can use the money, putting environmental goals at the forefront and seeking to curb the dominance of car travel. The 1,249-page bill underscores a partisan divide on transportation policy, with both parties at odds on the federal role of supporting transit and the extent to which spending should target climate change.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the committee, said the proposal embodies a core piece of President Biden’s infrastructure plans, “seizing this once-in-a-generation opportunity to move our transportation planning out of the 1950s and toward our clean energy future.”
While the bill can expect a warm reception among House Democrats, who passed a similar proposal last year, it does not represent the bipartisan compromise that a Senate committee advanced last week. Republicans on the House committee, meanwhile, introduced their own proposal last month that is mostly focused on increasing road spending.
Those Republicans, led by Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), issued a joint statement Friday that was sharply critical of the Democrats’ new proposal, saying it showed the party’s leftward shift since last year.
“We are left with another bill that lets lengthy road and bridge project delays continue eating up precious resources, handcuffs our state and local partners, leaves rural communities behind, and prioritizes the Green New Deal to an extent that cripples the real infrastructure improvements communities across the country need,” the statement said.
In a briefing with reporters Friday, DeFazio brushed off the criticism.
“I’ve already heard some of my Republican colleagues in the House are saying this is radical,” he said. “Yeah, we are upending decades of status quo.”
The Democratic bill doesn’t propose a way to pay for itself, which is typical, but the spending it outlines is far in excess of what the government is forecast to collect in taxes on gasoline and diesel, which have historically been used to fund transportation.
The committee is scheduled to consider the bill Wednesday, a date the White House says it’s watching as Biden negotiates with Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), over a broader infrastructure deal. The two sides are split on how much to spend and how to pay for it, but Biden and Capito spoke by phone Friday after meeting at the White House earlier in the week. They also agreed to talk again Monday.
The House bill is the latest transportation funding proposal in a debate occurring alongside the White House’s infrastructure negotiations. Congress typically authorizes federal spending on highways, transit and rail about every five years. The previous bill, passed in 2015, expired last year, and its provisions were extended until the end of this September.
The new proposal adopts some of the ideas Biden set out in his initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. It would invest $4 billion in electric vehicle-charging infrastructure. It also includes a $3 billion fund aimed at undoing harms caused by urban highway construction, which often divided Black neighborhoods.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who chairs the committee’s highways and transit panel, said the bill was the most “inclusive” transportation funding bill ever proposed. It also would mandate a renewed focus on safety, requiring states to assess where pedestrians and cyclists are in the most danger and take steps to protect them.
“This bill is well beyond cars,” Norton said. “It supports transit, buses, bikes, pedestrians. It looks to the many different ways we get around, not simply roads and bridges.”
Transportation accounts for about one-third of the nation’s carbon emissions, the largest share of any sector of the economy. The bill would put climate change at the heart of the nation’s highway and transit policy, saying it “presents a significant risk to safety, the economy and national security,” and that “reducing the contributions of the transportation system to the nation’s total carbon pollution is critical.”
That policy is backed by $14.5 billion to reduce emissions and protect infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather and rising seas. States that make the least progress toward reducing emissions would be required to spend more money on their efforts, while the most successful states would be rewarded with flexibility in how they use federal money.
The bill would require that states prioritize fixing roads before expanding them and that they consider whether other improvements or a transit alternative would be more cost-effective than expansion. Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, which has advocated for road repairs, said the bill showed a willingness to rethink core federal transportation programs.
“This is a paradigm shift from the approach of the last 30 years of proposing small, exciting new programs to fix recognized problems while allowing the much larger core program to exacerbate and further those same problems,” she said.
Those proposed changes also could stoke opposition.
Jim Tymon, director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said provisions on prioritizing repairs were “a little bit of a heavy-handed approach,” since transportation needs vary across the country.
Still, Tymon said he was pleased to see bills moving forward on both sides of Congress with enough common ground between House and Senate proposals on top priorities to reach a deal before current transportation funding legislation expires.
“Congress has always done a great job in finding a way to compromise on transportation issues,” he said. “I think there’s a path forward to do that here this year.”
The proposed transit funding in the bill is aimed at tackling a maintenance backlog, first steering money to agencies with the oldest buses. It would give incentives for agencies to expand service by linking funding to how regularly trains and buses operate, while encouraging the development of housing near transit hubs. Funding also would be used to spur development of high-speed rail through a $25 billion grant program.
By tripling funding for Amtrak to $32 billion, the bill would aim to improve service along the Northeast Corridor and other parts of the country, while helping to make trains more accessible to people with disabilities.
Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the committee’s rail panel, said the bill would “bring America’s aging rail infrastructure into the 21st century.”
The bill is set to include $14.8 billion for earmarks, projects backed by individual members of Congress. That practice was scrapped a decade ago, but it has been revived by House leaders who argue that lawmakers understand the particular needs of their communities.