Infrastructure momentum rises as Democrats eye climate provisions

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 8, 2019

Momentum is building in Congress to move a broad infrastructure package by late spring, and newly empowered House Democrats are gearing up to include climate change components.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told reporters Tuesday that “the time frame is the next 100 days” for action on infrastructure, adding that House leadership had reserved floor time for an infrastructure bill and was considering late spring.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) yesterday, however, declined to offer a specific timeline for moving an infrastructure package. But he suggested it might not be one massive piece of legislation.

“There may be one, two, three bills to deal with infrastructure,” Hoyer told reporters. “I am hopeful that we can move some bills early and maybe some bills a little later.”

As plans to move legislation are formulating, two committees of jurisdiction held hearings on the subject yesterday to get the ball rolling.

At a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) stressed that any infrastructure package must address climate change, echoing a call by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) (E&E Daily, Dec. 7, 2018).

“The benefits of highway infrastructure investment will be impeded — if not downright nullified — if we don’t address the threats of climate change and extreme weather events that are increasingly disrupting our nation’s transportation system,” Carper said.

The Democrat also introduced legislation yesterday to boost the adoption of clean vehicles. The “Clean Corridors Act” would provide grants for the installment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and hydrogen fueling infrastructure along the National Highway System.

“This legislation will help us in our efforts to put the United States back in the driver’s seat of the world’s clean energy economy, while creating green manufacturing jobs here at home,” Carper said.

Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) repeated calls to streamline the permitting process for large infrastructure projects.

House hearing

On the other side of the Hill, the House Ways and Means Committee convened a hearing yesterday on the thorny question of how to pay for an infrastructure bill.

Pay-fors are a familiar stumbling block. They’re a key reason why President Trump’s much-touted $1 trillion infrastructure plan never came to fruition last year, even though the GOP controlled both chambers.

The first panel of witnesses included House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.). T&I will play a key role in drafting any infrastructure language, while Ways and Means will be tasked with identifying funding mechanisms.

DeFazio reiterated his support for increasing the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. He urged his GOP counterparts to get behind the move, saying it wouldn’t come back to haunt them when they run for re-election.

“People are afraid of the gas tax, although way more than half the states have raised their gas tax, and no one’s lost an election over it,” he said.

DeFazio added that he recognized the need to transition to a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) fee, saying it would better account for the rising number of EVs on the nation’s roads. EVs don’t pay the gas tax because they run on electricity rather than petroleum.

Graves also expressed strong support for transitioning to VMT, calling it the “most promising long-term solution.”

Still, Graves told his colleagues on Ways and Means that he was open to a variety of funding options. “Again, everything is on the table,” he said. “We are open to whatever you all put forth.”

Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) said he worried about increasing the gas tax without pursuing other reforms. “I do have concerns that simply raising the gas tax without implementing other reforms would merely get us a more expensive version of the status quo,” he said.

And Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) strongly hinted that he was considering bringing back Build America Bonds, which were taxable municipal bonds introduced by President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to provide infrastructure funding for local governments.

In a scrum with reporters after his testimony, DeFazio said he would prioritize climate change components such as EV mandates in an infrastructure package.

“Certainly, we’re working on that,” he said. “There’s issues of looking toward decarbonizing transportation. … I believe the solution is going to be electrification. So I’d like, in the longer-term bill, to look at how we are going to set up an electric backbone to support the future transportation needs of the country.”

Asked about Hoyer’s remarks about potentially moving a few associated bills, DeFazio said he was open to that idea.

“That would be fine with me,” he told reporters. “I would love to keep transportation separate. I would do harbors, I would do airports and I would do surface transportation.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told E&E News yesterday he would also welcome climate change components such as mandates for clean energy and coastal resilience.

“When you think about coastal resiliency, for example, the idea that we’re just gonna continue building sea walls and things like that is primitive and not very effective and really expensive,” he said.

“So the opportunities to work with coastal communities on wetland restoration, natural buffers, smart infrastructure resilience … I think all of that, if we’re really being responsive to the issue, should be reflected in what we do.”

Reporters Courtney Columbus and George Cahlink contributed.