House Leadership Prioritizes Infrastructure

Today, Democratic leadership in the US House of Representatives unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure package called “Moving America and the Environment Forward.”  It is an outline of legislation the House plans to take up in the coming months, including surface transportation, broadband, drinking water, airports, and waterways.

Most relevant is the surface transportation section of the proposal, totaling $434 billion, which gives us a preview of what Rep. DeFazio (D-OR), Chair of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is planning to include in the draft transportation reauthorization bill, which is expected in the spring. Goals for surface transportation include maintenance of existing infrastructure; modernizing transportation to be safer, smarter, and greener; and moving people in goods in safer and more carbon-neutral ways.

Within surface transportation, $319 billion is proposed for road-related priorities including new investments in bridge repair, funding for local communities and disadvantaged areas, cutting greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and improving the resiliency of infrastructure. Where things get interesting are the proposed changes to the “core highway programs” – these are the traditional funding streams that state departments of transportation use regularly.  The document indicates they want to revamp existing funding streams to ensure that federal transportation dollars improve the state of good repair, safety, and climate.  Provisions we are particularly happy about include:

  • States would be required to track GHG emission levels and to prioritize projects that reduce climate emissions, including investments in biking, walking and transit.
  • The Highway Safety Improvement Program would be modified to prioritize biking, walking, and Safe Routes to School; to require use of Complete Streets standards; and to support implementation of Vision Zero policies.
  • Gives more decision-making authority (i.e. local control) to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and expands suballocation, meaning more types of communities will be able to choose how federal transportation dollars are spent.

The proposal also identifies $105 billion for transit, with a priority on zero emission buses and transit; $10 billion for safety programs like those administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and $55 billion for passenger rail.

While the proposal is a narrative outline and not detailed legislative text, the language included clearly indicates the Committee has heard our push for increased funding and improved implementation for the Transportation Alternatives Program, increasing funding and focus on safety for people walking and biking, and incorporating Vision Zero into safety planning. We are also interested in how the core highway programs would be shifted to focus more on safety, good repair, and safety improvements rather than so heavily on highway expansion. There is also discussion of providing enforcement mechanisms for the performance measures, which we believe would bring much more transparency and accountability to states’ spending of billions of taxpayer dollars.

In terms of what’s next – #MovingForward is just an outline of what Democrats intend to do in the coming months. However, because it is tied to legislation like the surface transportation reauthorization that needs to move forward this year, this signals the House plans to be moving soon.  We have heard that Transportation Committee staff are hard at work on drafting legislation, and the detail in this proposal bears that out. It’s also heartening to have the Ways & Means Committee highlighted in this document, as they will have to find the money to pass a transportation reauthorization (or this larger infrastructure package). 

There are clearly negotiations ahead though – Rep. Graves (R-MO), the Republican leader of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee released a separate set of principles, prioritizing streamlining of project delivery, funding for small and rural communities, and improving highways and bridges, among others. As any transportation or infrastructure package has to be approved in both the House and Senate, some compromise will have to take place. 

Given what the Senate already passed last summer and its very positive provisions on biking and walking, we are more hopeful than ever that this Congress will produce a transportation bill, and it will be one that gives biking, walking, and Safe Routes the funding and priority it deserves as part of a transportation system with safe, affordable, healthy, and climate-friendly options to get around.