House Panel Clears $494B Highway-Transit-Rail Funding Bill
After a two-day marathon voting session, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a measure drafted by Democrats that would provide $494 billion for highway, transit and rail programs over the next five years, with an emphasis on reducing carbon emissions and building projects that can better withstand floods and other natural disasters.
The transportation measure, which committee members approved by voice vote, late June 18, would increase highway and transit funding by 46% over current levels and also provide a significant boost for rail funds. [View text of substitute text of bill, before amendments here.]
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the INVEST in America bill’s chief architect, called the measure “a transformational bill” that aims to “move our country into the 21st Century with a smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure.”
The bill’s main elements are $319 billion for highways, $105 billion for transit: $60 billion for rail—mainly passenger rail—and $10 billion for highway safety.
To help states that are struggling with shortfalls in transportation revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, nonfederal matching funds would not be required to access the bill’s $83.1 billion for highway and transit funding in fiscal year 2021.
In addition, it allows state transportation departments and local agencies to use $22 billion of the $83.1 billion for payroll or other operating expenses—applications that are typically prohibited for such funds.
In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously cleared a $287-billion highway-only measure in July 2019. That funding represents a 27% increase over the FAST Act’s level for highways.
The Environment and Public Works’ proposal has yet to advance to the Senate floor and still needs provisions from other Senate panels that are responsible for transit and highway safety provisions. Also still to come is a revenue title, from the Finance Committee.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s top Republican, Sam Graves of Missouri, criticized the INVEST bill for “overreaching and heavy-handed mandates. Graves said the legislation would end up “transforming every single core infrastructure program into a climate change program.”
He also slammed Democrats for generally leaving GOP lawmakers out of the drafting of the measure, which he referred to as “the majority’s ‘my way or the highway’ bill.”
Graves and his GOP colleagues offered an alternative bill, the Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform Technology and Efficient Review, or STARTER, Act. It includes provisions that focus on such areas as core transportation accounts, rural infrastructure needs and accelerating projects’ environmental reviews.
The proposed legislation is silent regarding the pivotal issue for all surface transportation bills—how to raise the revenue to fully fund it. That omission was expected, because the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s jurisdiction doesn’t include revenue.
DeFazio has said it will take an estimated $138-billion addition to the Highway Trust Fund to fully fund the INVEST in America bill.
At a press briefing earlier on June 18, Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, discussed several sources for paying for infrastructure. Neal said Democrats plan to revive the popular, but now expired, Build America Bonds program, and also use private-activity bonds—which are a current financing tool—and other types of borrowing.
The federally subsidized, taxable Build America Bonds were created in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and were aimed at helping state and local governments gain access to low-cost financing for infrastructure. More than $180 billion worth of the bonds were issued before the program lapsed Dec. 31, 2010.
Pelosi said that borrowing makes sense in the current financial environment. She told reporters that “with the interest rates where they are now, there’s never been a better time for us to go big, to think big, as the head of the Fed has said to us.”
The Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee’s approval of the INVEST in America bill came after the panel considered 177 amendments to what was initially an 864-page piece of legislation.
As lawmakers slogged through the proposals, the committee adopted 34 riders proposed by Republicans and 23 from Democrats, those figures belie the Democrats’ stamp on the end product. Indeed, votes on many of the other amendments broke generally along party lines.