House Democrats unveil $760 billion infrastructure strategy

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives announced a five-year, $760 billion framework for a transportation reauthorization bill on Wednesday following the failure last year by Congress and the Trump administration to work out a long-term infrastructure package.

Details of the climate-friendly plan — including how it will be paid for — still need to be worked out.

“I think it’s really important that we not volunteer a revenue stream until the administration reaches an agreement with us,” said Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the funding portion of the bill. “I think that will provide an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats, after our committee negotiates with them over what the revenue stream ought to be, to get on with what is a sorely needed investment in America.”

Democrats and Republicans agree that addressing the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund — traditionally the main funding source for infrastructure bills — is a priority, but they disagree on how to get there. To make up for shortfalls in the fund, Democrats are generally willing to raise the gas tax (an approach strongly supported by American Trucking Associations) but Republicans are roundly opposed to it.

In an election year, raising taxes to pay for infrastructure will be even more difficult. “I’m not optimistic of a long-term infrastructure bill getting signed into law this year,” Jeff Davis, Senior Fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, told FreightWaves. “A long-term bill will require north of raising $80 billion to shore up the Highway Trust Fund. The path of least resistance is to extend the current legislation and maintain funding levels until summer 2021, which is when the trust fund money runs out.”

The U.S. Senate approved its own, more austere infrastructure proposal last year, a five-year, $287 billion package which, like the House plan, included clean energy initiatives. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which proposes raising the gas tax by 25 cents per gallon to pay for infrastructure, urged the two sides to find consensus.

“Our nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating and only getting worse. By 2025, our crumbling infrastructure will cost American businesses $7 trillion,” said Chamber CEO Tom Donohue. “Today’s announcement … is an important step forward on the path to rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”

Over half of the proposal — $474 billion — is set aside for roads, bridges and alternative fuels, including funding incentives for states and local governments to build electric vehicle infrastructure. “Transformative clean energy investments” of $34.3 billion in the proposal include $1.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure to develop a charging network.

The plan would also simplify the application process for credit assistance obtained through Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loans for projects of national and regional significance.

Rail infrastructure investment would receive $55 billion in the proposal, most of which focuses on passenger rail. The House bill would also repeal recent efforts by the Trump administration to move liquefied natural gas in rail tank cars by preventing such transport “until the impacts are studied and appropriate control measures are in place.”

The proposal also incorporates previous stand-alone legislation to fully allocate tax money collected from shippers for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for its intended purpose, which is to maintain harbor channel depths for vessels importing cargo. It notes that the HMTF will collect an additional $10.2 billion over the next five years in addition to an estimated $9.5 billion previously collected but unspent.

The proposal also acknowledges the potential for drones through a plan to integrate them for cargo delivery. “The integration of large [drones] and electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft will help transport people and goods over varying distances, thereby reducing carbon pollution, congestion, and demand on our Nation’s ground infrastructure, particularly in metropolitan regions,” it states.