Image for DeFazio Proposes Sharply Increased Highway, Transit, Rail Funding

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio introduced this week a five-year, $494 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill, which represents a 46 percent increase over existing federal investment in highways, transit and railroads.

DeFazio, the Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his proposal would “move the nation’s infrastructure beyond a blueprint from the 1950s toward a more environmentally sustainable future.” “It’s time to move America to the 21st century in terms of its investment and vision for the transportation future of our nation,” DeFazio said in a conference call covered by The Washington Post. “We’ve been living for too long off the legacy of the Eisenhower era.”

Of the $494 billion, $319 billion would go to highways, $105 billion to transit (including a near tripling of funds for bus programs), $4.6 billion for highway safety, $5.3 billion for motor carrier safety and $60 billion for rail. The bill also would authorize $6.25 billion to pay for resilient infrastructure and provide $350 million per year in grants to create electric vehicle charging and hydrogen fueling stations. 

The legislation would change transportation priorities to fixing existing roads and bridges rather than building new ones and incentivize states to set goals and pursue projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The $60 billion for rail would address a maintenance backlog in rail infrastructure, establish new intercity passenger rail routes and expand commuter rail. It also would include $29.3 billion over five years for Amtrak – more than three times the passenger rail’s current funding level.

DeFazio set aside $83.1 billion in Fiscal Year 2021 to help struggling state and local transportation agencies. It would briefly eliminate the state-federal match, ensuring that all federal dollars offered in 2021 would be offered at 100 percent federal share. And the bill would allow state and local governments to use $22 billion of that money for salaries and operating expenses.

House Republicans complained they weren’t consulted on DeFazio’s measure, which could come up for a committee mark-up as soon as June 17 and reach the House floor in early July. They said the bill “lacks critical flexibility for states” and provides “outsized funding” for urban areas at the expense of rural areas.

While investing in infrastructure is a good political talking point, the sticking point is how to pay for investments. Much of the federal transportation kitty now comes from an 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax. That tax has remained unchanged since 1993, despite inflation and more fuel-efficient vehicles that prevents highway official from keeping up with wear and tear, as well as expanded demand.

Some federal officials favor switching to a tax on vehicle miles travelled (VMT), which arguably would better reflect usage and could apply to electric vehicles. However, taxing miles travelled would impact rural residents who travel longer distances to buy groceries and see doctors. DeFazio’s bill calls for a national VMT tax pilot program.

Congressman Richard Neal, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said he is committed to moving an infrastructure finance package, but noted negotiations need to occur soon. The current transportation authorization expires September 30, though it could be and probably will be extended, according to congressional observers.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told the Post the Trump administration will unveil its infrastructure proposal soon, while acknowledging there isn’t an agreement between parties or congressional chambers. Chao is married to Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, who is expected to get behind a markedly different reauthorization bill.

DeFazio’s bill, which is likely to pass the Democratically controlled House, represents a significant marker in anticipated negotiations before the November election.