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House committee passes $547 billion transportation bill with focus on climate after marathon meeting

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/10/2021 Ian Duncan
a group of people standing in front of a building: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) speaks during a news conference on infrastructure with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in May. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters) © Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) speaks during a news conference on infrastructure with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in May. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

After meeting throughout the night, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a $547 billion package early Thursday aimed at fixing the nation’s roads and transit systems while putting a bigger focus on the environment.

The committee spent 19 hours in a meeting that began Wednesday morning and considered more than 200 amendments to the transportation package and separate legislation to fund wastewater facilities. Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the bills would lay the foundations for President Biden’s proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan.

“I commend my colleagues for their hard work helping craft these two bills to deliver what Americans expect and deserve: safe roads and bridges, reliable transit options and a robust passenger rail network, wastewater systems that aren’t on the brink of failure, and a commitment to address the existential threat of climate change,” DeFazio said in a statement.

The final vote was 38-26, with two Republicans joining Democrats to support the bill.

Democratic lawmakers and left-leaning groups say the bill represents a fundamental rethinking of the way the federal government approaches transportation policy — an effort to move beyond the highway-dominated approach of the 20th century. The five-year bill is separate from Biden’s infrastructure push but embodies many of the ideas proposed by the president.

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It 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 seeks to ensure that states maintain existing highway infrastructure before adding new lanes and would create programs aimed at reducing carbon emissions from driving.

The bill would significantly boost funding for other modes of transportation. It calls for $109 billion for transit and $95 billion for rail, including a tripling of funding to Amtrak, to $32 billion.

Despite the two Republican votes in support, the debate underscored partisan divisions over how the federal government should approach transportation policy. GOP leaders branded the legislation the “My Way or the Highway Bill” and sought to characterize it as hopelessly radical.

Republicans proposed amendments that would have changed core provisions in the legislation, such as striking the policy of prioritizing existing roads and blocking money for California’s high-speed rail project. Republicans also sought to include changes to the environmental review process for major projects, which they argue is unnecessarily slow and could be sped up without harming the environment.

The meeting also underscored how differently the parties view the role of cars in the future of transportation. Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) summed up the bill’s approach in a tweet: “No car? No problem.”

The debate over provisions to require that states tend to existing roads and consider alternatives such as transit before widening highways highlighted the divide. Republicans argued that states need flexibility to spend money where they judged it to be most needed.

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said making it harder for states to expand roads would disadvantage rural communities.

“In that kind of a rural environment, single-occupancy vehicles are not the villain,” Johnson said. “They are the economic lifeblood that connect people to opportunity. The idea that we are going to slow down the kind of capacity-expansion projects that are necessary, to me is going to slow growth in these rural and tribal areas.”

DeFazio said states had pursued highway-widening projects for decades and needed to be pushed to consider different approaches.

“A lot of states will never look for alternatives,” he said. “They’re just stuck in the mode of ‘pave it over. Pave more. Bulldoze more neighborhoods. Pave it more.’ There are limits.”

The bill includes $5.7 billion to fund almost 1,500 projects earmarked by individual members of Congress.

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Deron Lovaas, an environmental advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the bill a model for the kind of legislation Congress should pursue to battle climate change.

“This bill will provide the investments we need in transit, safe streets, vehicle charging stations, and reconnecting communities divided by highways,” Lovaas said. “Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions, so addressing climate in this legislation is crucially important.”

The committee’s approval sends the package to the House floor, with Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) planning a vote for the week of June 28. Existing highway and transit programs are set to expire Sept. 30, and DeFazio said he’s committed to passing a bill before then.

That will mean negotiating with the Senate, which is working on its own version of the bill. One committee already has advanced a bipartisan $304 billion proposal for highway funding. That legislation is similar, in some ways, to the bill advancing in the House, and DeFazio has expressed optimism about a deal.

On Thursday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee unveiled a $78 billion contribution to the package. The bipartisan measure would boost funding for major transportation grant programs, fund safety agencies and provide $19 billion for Amtrak.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said the bill would help the nation bounce back from the pandemic and was “a down payment to thrive and compete in the innovation economy.”

Securing a long-term funding bill is the top priority for groups representing state transportation officials and businesses involved in road construction. While some have expressed concerns about aspects of the House bill — such as the focus on highway repairs rather than new roads — many are pleased that legislation is moving forward after a failed push last year.

“Consistent federal investment through a new, long-term surface transportation reauthorization, developed in consultation with federal, state and local partners, would help counties undertake much-needed infrastructure improvement and development projects,” said Matthew Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties.

At the same time, Biden has been pushing for a grander infrastructure deal. An initial series of talks with one group of Republican senators ended this week without a bargain, but the White House says it will continue discussions with lawmakers from both parties.

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