Democrats release $500B green transportation legislation

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 3, 2020

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) during a press conference earlier this year on infrastructure reform principles. Francis Chung/E&E News

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) today released a nearly $500 billion surface transportation bill with robust climate provisions, laying the groundwork for House Democrats’ broader green infrastructure package.

The “Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (INVEST) in America Act” would authorize $494 billion over five years for modernizing the country’s aging network of roads and bridges.

The bill would specifically provide $319 billion for the federal highway program, $105 billion for mass transit and $60 billion for rail.

It would also reauthorize the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which expires on Sept. 30.

The measure is the central component of the $760 billion infrastructure framework that House Democrats unveiled in January (Greenwire, Jan. 29).

Like the framework, the bill contains a strong emphasis on climate mitigation, according to a summary of its climate provisions prepared by committee staffers.

The bill would create a new $8.3 billion program that incentivizes states to reduce carbon emissions from transportation projects, establish a $6.25 billion predisaster mitigation program that helps states prepare for extreme weather events, and invest $1.4 billion in electric vehicle charging and hydrogen refueling stations.

Still, the measure largely maintains the status quo in terms of the federal approach to transportation, with twice as much money flowing to highways as to mass transit and rail combined.

The T&I Committee is set to consider the measure during a markup scheduled for June 17. It may reach the floor soon after.

No clean energy

Absent from the bill are any clean energy provisions, which could help the sector recover from a crush of nearly 600,000 job losses during the coronavirus pandemic.

A T&I Committee aide noted that clean energy falls under the jurisdiction of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Tax issues at play in the current energy debates belong to the Ways and Means Committee.

E&C Subcommittee on the Environment and Climate Change Chairman Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy ranking member Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) today sent a letter to House and Senate leadership demanding that the next COVID-19 relief package address clean energy.

“As Congress works to help the American economy recover, we must ensure robust investments are made to spur growth in renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, clean and efficient infrastructure, clean fuels, and workforce development,” they wrote.

“Smart investments in these areas can help America decarbonize, put people back to work, and help our national, state, and local economies recover,” they added.

Competing reactions

Top Republicans on the T&I Committee today complained that they were not involved in drafting the “INVEST in America Act.”

“Democrats and Republicans alike know the only way to complete a reauthorization is if we work together,” T&I Committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Subcommittee on Highways and Transit ranking member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials ranking member Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said in a joint statement.

“Unfortunately, driven by the Speaker’s partisan agenda, Committee Republicans were not involved in the development of this bill,” they added.

The GOP lawmakers also criticized the environmental provisions in the Democratic-led bill, lamenting that “numerous new green mandates and extreme progressive goals are woven throughout the fabric of new and existing core programs.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce similarly called for bipartisanship in approving infrastructure legislation, noting the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s bipartisan plan (Greenwire, July 29, 2019).

“With historic unemployment, tremendous unmet infrastructure needs, and less than four months before the expiration of surface transportation programs, this is no time for another partisan approach to infrastructure,” said chief policy officer Neil Bradley.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, during an event this morning, also stressed bipartisanship and some of her priorities.

“So as we go forward, we will continue to talk about the need to invest in our infrastructure. And we do invest, but we need more money,” she said. “Obviously, we need a coordinated long-term plan to address the infrastructure needs of our country. And we have reauthorization coming up of the FAST Act that’s coming up on Sept. 30.”

Chao said, “We don’t want to have shovel-ready projects only. We should be thinking longer-term, on a 10-year basis, for example.”

National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara today praised DeFazio’s leadership on the bill, although he called for a stronger focus on wildlife crossings and nature-based solutions.

“Chairman DeFazio’s legislation will help get millions of Americans back to work as we recover from the COVID-19 unemployment crisis by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, strengthening community resilience and reducing risks from climate change,” O’Mara said in a statement.

“We will work with our allies in the House to ensure this package places a higher priority on constructing wildlife crossings to reduce vehicle collisions and deploying nature-based solutions that are more cost-effective and protective during extreme weather events than traditional hardened alternatives,” he said.