Congress offers mixed message on infrastructure

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Some key congressional lawmakers have cast doubts that major infrastructure legislation is possible before the November election, despite bipartisan effort to accomplish it if they can.

Rep. Sam Graves, ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, addressed members of the National Association of Counties about efforts to pass infrastructure legislation this year.

During a transportation update to members of the National Association of Counties Tuesday, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee expressed those mixed sentiments.

“What we have to worry about more than anything else, is leadership postponing it until after the election so the president doesn’t get a win,” Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., told the NACo members. “Hopefully that doesn’t happen so we are going to move forward.”

Graves said he has a longtime working relationship with the committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, that makes him hopeful the committee will be able to agree to a bipartisan surface transportation reauthorization this year.

“I am optimistic we are going to be able to do it,” Graves said.

DeFazio has pledged to release a draft of a five-year reauthorization bill covering highways, bridges, mass transit, rail, wastewater, harbors and airports by the end of this month and for the committee to complete its work by the end of April.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last year unanimously approved a five-year reauthorization for highways and bridges, but the Senate Banking and Urban Affairs Committee has only just begun work on the section covering mass transit.

Neither the House or Senate has publicly said how the legislation will be paid for.

Graves told NACo that “everything is on the table,” including public private partnerships, tolling, a vehicle miles traveled tax and a battery tax.

“We have to recover those dollars from the vehicles that are not paying for the use of that road,” Graves said. “If we do VMT, which is what I am pushing, we are going to collect it at the pump.”

Under a VMT, Graves said, “Nobody will notice a difference” because the cost would be the same with each driver paying about $225 annually.

For electric vehicles, Graves predicted the federal government may use Oregon and Washington state as a model with an annual fee collected at the time the vehicle registration is renewed based on an odometer reading.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who says that the only way to resolve partisan division over a VMT versus increasing the federal gasoline tax is to do both, told The Bond Buyer that there has been no progress on that topic over the last week.

Davis said he remains “cautiously optimistic” that a bipartisan reauthorization bill can reach the House floor.

The current surface transportation bill, the FAST Act, expires on Sept. 30.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that unanimously approved a surface transportation bill last year, told NACo that the Senate bill authorizes a 27% increase in federal spending on highways and bridges.

It adds climate and infrastructure resiliency provisions for the first time and includes $1 billion for electric vehicle charging stations, Cardin said.

“If we don’t get it done, we’ll be operating on a continuing resolution which to me is unacceptable,” Cardin said.

Other lawmakers who addressed NACo highlighted other goals for the legislation.

Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., said he hopes to insert into the package his standalone bill on alternative projects that would establish a $500 million a year grant program. Pappas said it could provide funding for alternative transportation such as the the coast to coast Great American Rail-Trail for long distance cyclists and runners.

Rep. Salud Ortiz Carbaja, D-Calif., said he has a bill to establish a national infrastructure corporation that he hopes will attract investments from private pension funds.

“This would be another tool available to local and state governments, especially local governments, to fund at a low interest rate much of their infrastructure needs,” Carbaja told The Bond Buyer. Loans would be made from investment corporation but there might be an opportunity for issuing bonds as well, he said.

Carbaja, however, has no cosponsors at this point.

The chairman of NACo’s transportation steering committee, Randy Maluchnik, a Carver County commissioner in Minnesota, said he’s pessimistic that infrastructure legislation will pass Congress before the November election.

“I am hoping that after this election everybody will come together in a bipartisan way and get the infrastructure that we need to move this country forward,” Maluchnik said.

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