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House committee backs $547B transportation bill

by IAN DUNCAN THE WASHINGTON POST | June 11, 2021 at 4:22 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- After meeting throughout the night, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee endorsed 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 DeFazio, D-Ore., said the bills would lay the foundations for President Joe Biden's proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan.

The final vote was 38-26, with two Republicans joining Democrats to support the bill. The five-year bill is separate from Biden's infrastructure push but embodies many of the ideas proposed by the president.

It includes $343 billion for road and bridge construction, as well as highway safety -- a boost of more than 50% 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 boost significantly 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 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."

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

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

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 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."

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