President Biden is celebrating a major victory for one of his top legislative priorities, as he touts a bipartisan agreement on a framework to nearly double spending on transportation and infrastructure over the next eight years.
“Today is a huge day for half of my economic agenda,” Biden said Thursday, as he praised the agreement that will spend $1.2 billion to repair, rebuild and expand roads, bridges, railroads, public transportation, airports, water and sanitation infrastructure. and broadband.
Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, one of the key Republican negotiators among the 21 senators who brokered the deal, said he was “delighted” that the two parties were able to reach an agreement on the deal.
“It’s something that has been traditionally bipartisan,” Portman said. “I am very pleased to see today that we are able to work together on a basic infrastructure package…without new taxes.”
But while infrastructure spending may indeed be something that has bipartisan support, there are still significant differences between and even within the two parties about what spending priorities should be, and even about what should be called “infrastructure.”
Some wanted a bigger and bolder infrastructure package
These differences between the more progressive Democrats on the left, conservative Republicans on the right, and a small number of moderates from both parties in the center, appear to reflect the broader partisan and cultural divide across the country.
Arizona Democratic Representative Kirsten Senema noted that senators should now return to Capitol Hill and sell the deal to their colleagues. Some wanted a bigger, bolder infrastructure package that would shift spending priorities away from traditional highways and bridges focused on cars and trucks, and instead increase access to transportation and other gas-guzzling modes of transportation.
“It’s critical that we change the way we invest,” says Amy Renell, executive director of the Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance. “Our concern is really with how we support active forms of transportation, whether it’s pedestrian safety, bike travel or transit, because otherwise, we’re enduring a car-centric status quo that we know is really unhealthy for our environment, our health and our community.”
She points to a massive transit building project on Chicago’s north side called the Belmont Flyover as an example of spending that could improve transportation efficiency, reduce congestion, and get more people out of their cars.
The flyover is being built in a location where three of the Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated railroad tracks are fused together, causing long delays as trains often have to sit and wait while other trains cross in front of them.
Consider how safe travel is for everyone
The flyover will dismantle this 114-year-old intersection by hoisting one railroad over the other two, bypassing this choke point, allowing for more trains and faster and smoother commutes for about 150,000 passengers a day.
It’s part of a file $2 billion CTA modernization project Partially funded by the last major federal infrastructure package.
“Federal dollars for projects like this are too important for them to ever happen,” Rynell says.
She and other active transportation advocates were excited that the Biden administration and congressional Democrats initially proposed plans with a greater focus on projects like these, which address climate change and justice.
“Through these two lenses, transportation looks a lot different,” says Renell. “Instead of building a road or highway that divides society, how do we build a mode of transportation that unites society and helps people get what they need. Instead of how quickly we can get a car on the road, we look at how far each person can be traveling Safe, whether pedestrian, cyclist or driver
“We are upending decades of status quo,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (Democrat-raw) says of the transportation spending bill, which the committee passed two weeks ago 38-26, with only Republicans voting in favor of it.
Republicans want to back away from Democrats’ efforts
“I wouldn’t do Eisenhower 8.0,” DeFazio says, referring to the 1950s initiative that created the Interstate Highway System and helped accelerate suburban growth and sprawl. “This is the 21st century in the USA. Building more highways and repairing some bridges is not an answer to the congestion.“
DeFazio still plans to bring his bill to the House floor for a vote next week, and he says it will shift spending priorities in several new ways.
The bill contains a “Repair First” clause that requires state transportation departments to repair or rebuild existing infrastructure before building new roads or adding highway lanes. It would also require a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether transit would be a better option than increasing the capacity of roads or highways for cars and trucks.
But Republicans don’t have it, and they want to roll back Democrats’ efforts to spend big on things like transit, commuter rail and bike lanes.
“The Biden administration’s plan is very excessive,” Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey said at a committee hearing last week on Biden’s plan to boost transportation spending by tens of billions. “The administration appears to have lost sight of the fact that the federal role in infrastructure spending has been limited, and that state and local governments are primarily responsible” for funding such projects, he said, adding that his state taxpayers should not have to do so. . Transfer the money elsewhere.
“For example, a bus or a light rail station in San Francisco doesn’t really do much for people in Pittsburgh,” Tommy said.
Many experts on the subject say the stance that many Republicans have long held is a reflection of the country’s bitter partisan divide.
It is difficult to find a balance acceptable to both parties
“We have become so polarized that the Republicans are the rural party and the former urban party and the Democrats are the urban and inner suburban party,” says Jeff Davis of the nonpartisan Inno Transportation Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “And it’s very difficult these days to find a highway against a mutually acceptable transit budget.”
But Davis says some Republicans are willing to keep pace with Democrats’ efforts to dramatically increase spending on commuter rail, in order to keep Amtrak’s long-distance trains running through places like North Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas.
And since extreme weather is taking a bigger toll across the country, he says, some in the Republican Party seem willing to support some climate change initiatives, as long as you don’t call them that.
“If you use the words ‘climate change’ or ‘green,’ Republicans will run away,” Davis says. “But you can fund most of the exact same projects, the exact amount of money, if you call it resilience, extreme weather preparedness or something else, instead of calling it climate change or green, Republicans will vote for it.”
The bipartisan framework agreement includes nearly $47 billion in resilience financing, plus $66 billion for freight and passenger rail, $49 billion for transportation and $109 billion for roads and bridges. There’s even $15 billion for electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. These numbers come on top of the core spending that Congress already intended to approve.
But it still has to make it through the House and Senate, where extremists in both parties may try to add to, roll out or derail the mega-infrastructure plan.