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Infrastructure deal pares back highway removal plan but cracks open door to greener transportation system

Unlike President Biden’s original proposal, the deal largely leaves in place a decades-old approach that favors highways over transit.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, center, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, behind, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, second from right, tour the Port of Baltimore on Thursday. Bill Doyle, far right, executive director of the Port of Baltimore, leads the tour. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

With an infrastructure deal advancing on bipartisan lines, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he sees an opportunity to heal a scar caused decades ago by construction of a “highway to nowhere” through West Baltimore. The package puts money toward reconnecting neighborhoods split apart by the 20th century’s highway construction boom.

But the White House originally called for $25 billion to help take down highways and rebuild communities. In the final deal that advanced this week, that sum was whittled to $1 billion.

In New Orleans, activist Amy Stelly called the pared-down number “sobering.” She had been fighting to remove the city’s Claiborne Expressway — completed in 1968 through the Tremé neighborhood — long before the White House earlier this year called it an example of a historic inequity that President Biden’s infrastructure plan would seek to address.

A woman called for a highway’s removal in a Black neighborhood. The White House singled it out in its infrastructure plan.

“They are not thinking of the people who are forced to live with this,” she said of Washington lawmakers. “We’re not their priorities. They make that clear.”

The bipartisan deal includes more than $280 billion in new transportation spending over five years, representing more than half of new expenditures in the overall package. But the fate of the highway removal fund — as well as spending on electric-vehicle chargers and a road safety program that were negotiated down by half — shows how the infrastructure deal, despite opening avenues for addressing climate change and inequities in the transportation system, falls short of the more ambitious vision Biden set out in his original plan.

Van Hollen acknowledged the shortcomings of the highway removal fund on Thursday during an appearance at the Port of Baltimore with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“Would I like that overall fund bigger? Yes,” Van Hollen said in an interview. “There are clearly other huge needs around the country, and so we will be working to increase that fund.”

Standing amid hulking ships docked at the port, Buttigieg — a chief salesman of the bipartisan deal — praised what he called the largest infrastructure package in almost a century.Buttigieg said the latest version contains the nation’s largest-ever investments in transit, Amtrak, drinking water and electric-vehicle infrastructure.

Here’s how the bipartisan infrastructure deal would invest $280 billion in transportation

“This is our opportunity to make sure every single American who drives a car, takes a bus, uses a train, steps onboard an aircraft, drinks water out of the tap — in other words, every single American — sees their life get better,” he said.

Buttigieg addressed the disappointment among those who embraced Biden’s more expansive plan for equity, climate and transit, but emphasized the $1 trillion-plus scope of the full package, which proposes upgrades to roads, bridges, pipes, ports, the electric grid and Internet connections.

“This is the beginning, and not the end, of the work that we need to do, especially on things like reconnecting communities that were divided,” Buttigieg said.

In many ways, the deal sticks with a decades-old status quo, prioritizing highways over transit and leaving decisions on how to use federal money mostly to states. Adie Tomer, who leads the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said that while the package illustrates how far the Senate has moved in the past decade on climate change and the digital economy, its transportation spending would be less transformative.

“We have a diversity of attitudes in the United States about what kind of transportation system we want, and that’s what you get out of federal bills because federal bills represent the country,” Tomer said.

Some environmentalists and left-leaning groups hope more spending and policy shifts can be rolled into a separate package Democrats want to advance in the Senate on a party-line vote using a process called reconciliation.

In Biden’s infrastructure moonshot, a big question: Can the nation still achieve its highest ambitions?

That could include granting subsidies for electric cars, adding rules on reducing carbon emissions, limiting road-widening or generating funding for transit. This week, 62 House Democrats signed a letter saying the federal government should abandon a convention under which roads get $4 for every $1 that transit receives and use a second spending package to create a path to a 50-50 split.

Democrats emphasized the two-track nature of what they hope will happen next, describing the mix of pressure, scrutiny and strategies underlying their push.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House subcommittee on the environment and climate change in the Energy and Commerce Committee, said “watchdog” lawmakers would seek to add ideas from a House-passed transportation and water bill into the Senate proposal.

“We’re going to make certain that we maximize what we can do,” Tonko said, and if that effort doesn’t succeed, “we’ll then concentrate on the reconciliation bill. But we have got to invest heavily.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said the two-track effort represents the best opportunity for ambitious results in the current political environment.

“I appreciate people’s frustrations, but we are moving forward in the very best way to be able to have a robust traditional infrastructure plan coupled with a real focus on clean-energy jobs, tackling the climate crisis, moving forward on electrification,” she said.

Intercity rail stands as an exception to the deal’s otherwise moderate approach.

The package calls for a $66 billion investment in railroads, which generally have received limited federal support. Much of that money would go to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, but routes in other areas also would benefit, helping Amtrak embark upon ambitious expansion plans it has set out in recent weeks.

Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a policy analysis group, said the money would open the possibility of a “truly national” Amtrak network.

Amtrak is a top travel choice in the Northeast. With an ally in the White House, it wants trains in the rest of America.

Transit would get a boost of $39 billion — an increase of 83 percent over current levels, according to a summary of the deal circulated to senators, a sum close to the total proposed in the House bill. Unlike the money for rail, Freemark said that’s not likely to be enough to unleash a boom in new projects like light-rail systems or subway lines.

But the infusion of funding and inclusion of workforce safety measures were enough to secure the backing Friday of the 150,000-member Transport Workers Union. The organization had supported the more expansive House bill.

The negotiations also yielded Republican priorities, including a provision aimed at streamlining environmental reviews of road projects with the aim of completing them within two years.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the talks resulted in a more focused approach to federal spending, resulting in the prioritization of roads and other hard assets.

“These are all job-creating, economy-stimulating functions of physical infrastructure,” Capito said in an appearance on Fox News this week.

Highways and bridges would receive the largest infusion in the package, with about $100 billion in new funding. The plan states that $36 billion would be set aside to repair bridges, with much of the rest put into the hands of states.

Despite the White House highlighting that 173,000 miles of road are in poor condition in its summary of the deal, the package doesn’t require money be spent on fixing them. A Washington Post analysis earlier this year showed that a fifth of the nation’s major roads were rated in poor condition in 2019.

Infrastructure plan calls for fixing the nation’s existing roads. Some states are still focused on expansion.

The package builds on a road funding bill a Senate committee adopted this year, which sets aside funding for carbon emission reduction efforts. It also includes a $5 billion program to help design safer streets, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. And $7.5 billion would be set aside to help build a national network of electric-vehicle chargers.

Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the package would tackle environmental, equity and safety problems, while preserving states’ flexibility to design transportation networks suited to their needs.

“Over the next few years what they’ll see is projects that were farther down the pipeline — were going to get done in five years or 10 years — are going to get done in the next two years or three years,” he said. “I think that’s important for people. It will have an impact on our quality of life.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a labor union that backed the new infrastructure deal. It is the Transport Workers Union. This article has been corrected.