The bill is advancing as President Biden is seeking to secure $2.3 trillion in new funding for infrastructure programs branded as the American Jobs Plan. While the bill is separate from that push — funding core programs at the Department of Transportation and Amtrak that Congress typically renews about every five years — it embodies many of the ideas proposed by Biden, such as funding electric vehicle chargers and a program to heal wounds left by urban highway construction. The proposal also would set rules on how states can spend federal transportation dollars.
Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) compared the urgency of confronting climate change to how the nation built transportation networks during the Cold War that could serve during conflict with the Soviet Union. That infrastructure delivered prosperity in the 20th century, he said, adding that it needs to be replaced in an environmentally sustainable way.
“The single largest contributor to climate change in the United States of America is carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels in transportation,” he said.
But the bill’s environmental focus — and its partisan drafting process — were assailed by committee Republicans, who cast Wednesday’s meeting as a dead-end that would deliver a proposal that had no chance of becoming law because of opposition in the Senate.
“Finding a compromise would result in something we could all support for the good of the country,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the top Republican on the committee. “Our side was willing to do that.”
The committee on Wednesday first approved a wastewater bill that would provide $50 billion over five years for sewage and storm water projects. Debate became more heated in the early afternoon when lawmakers turned to more than 200 proposed amendments to the transportation bill — a process expected to span two days.
The bill includes $343 billion for road and bridge construction, as well as highway safety — a boost of more than 50 percent over the last transportation bill Congress passed in 2015. It also calls for $109 billion for transit and $95 billion for rail, including a tripling of funding to Amtrak.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), chairwoman of the committee’s highways and transit panel, said the proposal marked a departure from previous transportation bills she has considered in her three decades in Congress.
“It does contain what is needed: An unprecedented investment in our infrastructure,” she said.
Some of those provisions were criticized by Republicans, who said they estimated half of the spending in the bill was directed to environmental ends they derided as part of the “Green New Deal,” a reference to a congressional resolution in 2019 that sought to cut net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in a decade.
“Two percent of the vehicles in America today are electric. Two percent. Two. And we’re going to spend a billion dollars a year on charging stations?” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) “Y’all remember when the federal government funded gas stations, right? No, that never happened.”
The federal tax code includes billions of dollars in aid for fossil fuel industries, subsidies Biden has proposed eliminating as part of his infrastructure plans.
DeFazio announced Monday the bill would provide $5.7 billion for almost 1,500 earmark projects, which are local priorities backed by members of Congress. Lawmakers originally had submitted requests to fund projects worth $14.8 billion, but the committee declined to approve many of them.
In the Senate, responsibility for the transportation bill is split between several committees. Last month, the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved the road funding portion, which was the result of an agreement between the committee’s Democratic and Republican leaders. But work on the transit section in the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee is expected to be more contentious as Democrats seek to boost spending.
DeFazio and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Environment Committee, said last week they are optimistic that both chambers could reach an agreement. They face a deadline: The current transportation funding law expires at the end of September.