Congress

DeFazio wants to go big on infrastructure despite hurdles

Plan embraces automated vehicles and intelligent transportation roadways

House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is pushing an ambitious bill that could help House Democrats show they are trying to do big things beyond impeachment (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats are renewing their push for a major infrastructure bill without the support they once hoped to get from President Donald Trump.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Oregon, presented a comprehensive infrastructure plan during a closed-door meeting of House Democrats late Thursday. The legislation is still being drafted, he said, and he declined to offer any cost estimates.

“I’m not prepared to say,” he said, “but it’s a big one.”

It’s a tricky time to push such a plan: Democrats are in the middle of Trump impeachment hearings, a new United States-Mexico-Canada trade pact is imminent and the 2020 elections loom.

Pushing such an ambitious bill could help House Democrats show they are trying to do big things beyond impeachment, which may be why party leaders encouraged DeFazio to bring the plan to the caucus after he showed them an outline.

At the same time, DeFazio said he has little choice but to move forward on a transportation measure because the current surface transportation authorization will run out of money sometime next year. “It’s a must-do,” he said.

But rather than opt simply for a highway bill, DeFazio is aiming big, embracing a plan to modernize the transportation industry — the largest source of greenhouse gases — by embracing automated vehicles and intelligent transportation roadways.

[DeFazio: Uber, Lyft need to ‘clean up their acts’]

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, said the blueprint DeFazio laid out Thursday would be “potentially transformative” if enacted.

“I think it’s important for people to figure out what they’re willing to do,” he said of his fellow lawmakers.

Blumenauer was more optimistic about the prospects of such a bill passing. “This is one of the few things even Donald Trump says he supports,” he said.

While a five-year, $287 billion surface transportation bill approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in late July included a climate title, DeFazio’s would go further, focusing on resilient infrastructure and cutting down on fossil fuels as well as using current infrastructure better.

[Senate biofuel advocates want a piece of transportation bill]

Efficiencies

“We’re not going to build a whole hell of a lot more lanes of travel or roads through our cities,” DeFazio said. “So how can we use the capacity we have more efficiently?”

The committee is currently drafting a bill, DeFazio said, and he’s hopeful that the Senate will move on its bill within the next few months — including how to pay for it.

“I would hope we could be in conference by late spring,” he said.

He said the plan builds on early discussions with Trump and would cover roads, bridge, highways, transit, wastewater, harbor and airports.

Trump and House Democrats had looked close to reaching a comprehensive infrastructure agreement in early May 2019, when Trump appeared to embrace the notion of a bill that could cost up to $2 trillion.

Those plans were thwarted by the end of that month, when Trump, at a second White House meeting on infrastructure, demanded an end to what he called “phony investigations.”

With Democrats now pursuing a full-fledged impeachment, however, it’s unclear — and more realistically, unlikely — that the two sides will work together on a large-scale bill.

Trump and Congress have repeatedly agreed on the need for a big infrastructure bill but never actually acted on one.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said without a plan to pay for a comprehensive infrastructure bill, prospects of it becoming a reality are unlikely.

“We can’t keep crying wolf, saying we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this. We can draft a bill, an infrastructure bill, but if we don’t have the money, we’re just crying wolf in my opinion.”

He said Ways and Means will have to finish up USMCA before they can seriously address infrastructure.

DeFazio said he had originally planned to rewrite the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, but decided to become more ambitious after the talks with Trump broke down.

DeFazio does not have jurisdiction over funding for the bill, however, and Thursday’s meeting only addressed the sweep of the bill — not how it would be paid for.

DeFazio, who has embraced a modest increase in the gas tax, acknowledged that funding his proposal would be up to the House Ways and Means Committee and its chairman, Richard E. Neal, D-Massachusetts.

“Richie agrees we need a big bill,” DeFazio said. “It’s up to him to figure out how to pay for this.”

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