WASHINGTON —With backing from the Teamsters, Smart’s Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a Teamsters sector, the House Transportation Committee’s Democratic leaders unveiled a 5-year, $494 billion transportation infrastructure bill on June 10. They set a panel work session on it for June 17.
In a shift from past transportation bills – and to put people quickly back to work to counteract the steepest depression since the 1930s – the bill’s money is front-loaded, with relatively more funds getting shoveled out the door in fiscal 2021, which starts Oct. 1, panel chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said.
Most policy changes come after that, in fiscal 2022 and beyond, he added. But one policy that would be reinforced all the way through is Buy America requirements.
A wide range of groups – labor, consumer, environmental and more – backed the Invest in America Act, a committee fact sheet says. They range from the three unions to the National Parks Conservation Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. As an index of how badly the nation needs an infrastructure transfusion, the parks alone face a multi-billion-dollar backlog of repairs and replacement projects.
Left unsaid in DeFazio’s statement and fact sheets was how to pay for all this work. That’s been a struggle for at least a decade. Also left unsaid is how many jobs it would create.
The federal gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993, is supposed to fund highway and mass transit construction. But now – thanks to more-fuel efficient vehicles, recessions and other factors – it falls woefully short. And other transportation modes, from Amtrak to bikeways, have been subject to congressional whims.
The new legislation says $411 billion would come from the gas tax. But the 10-page detailed summary of the measure doesn’t say if it includes a gas tax hike, as some unions, notably the Laborers, championed in past years. The other $83 billion is money already allotted to battle the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Right-wing Republicans, led by the so-called House Freedom Caucus, are dead set against any gas tax hike. The GOP Trump administration repeatedly promised its own highway-and-transit legislation but never delivered more than a skeleton outline. It’s sometimes floated the idea of turning all highway, rail and transit funding over to the states.
The roadblocks didn’t stop DeFazio, or the union leaders, from touting the legislation, which would allot $319 billion for highway projects, $105 billion for mass transit, $5.3 billion for highway safety, $4.6 billion for motor carrier safety and $60 billion – a fivefold increase – for Amtrak and commuter railroads, including state-subsidized commuter lines.
“For too long, the needs of professional drivers and others who work in the transpor-
tation sector have been ignored by lawmakers,” Teamsters Joint Council 42 President Randy Cammack said. “This legislation will set the nation on the right path by making badly needed infrastructure improvements while also ensuring that workers are protected on the job.”
BLE&T President Dennis Pierce called the measure’s rail funding section “the most significant piece of railroad legislation since the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.”
“The bulk of our nation’s infrastructure — our roads, bridges, public transit and rail systems, the things that hundreds of millions of American families and businesses rely on every single day — is not only badly outdated, in many places it’s downright dangerous and holding our economy back,” DeFazio, who is close to the House Democratic leadership, said.
“Yet for decades, Congress has repeatedly ignored the calls for an overhaul and instead simply poured money into short-term patches. The result? We’re still running our economy on an inefficient, 1950s-era system that costs Americans increasingly more time and money while making the transportation sector the nation’s biggest source of carbon pollution,”
“That all changes…After nearly 20 committee hearings, receiving testimony from dozens and dozens of witnesses” and lawmakers “and engaging with hundreds of advocates and transportation agencies, I am proud to bring together the ideas and the needs into one transformational bill that will catapult our country into a new era of how we plan, build, and improve U.S. infrastructure.”
The measure, DeFazio stated, “is our opportunity to replace the outdated systems of the past with smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits the economy of the future, creates millions of jobs, supports American manufacturing, and restores U.S. competitive-ness.” It also has, though he did not say so, significant green transportation incentives.