House committee passes partisan surface transportation bill

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A House bill authorizing $494 billion in federal surface transportation spending establishes Democrats’ position for an eventual compromise with their counterparts in the Senate.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the Invest in America plan by voice vote Thursday night. It is one part of a broader infrastructure package announced by House Democrats, another part of which includes sought-after bond provisions.

“For far too long, Congress has taken a pass on trying to solve the toughest problems plaguing our surface transportation system, allowing it to limp along and fall farther and farther behind the rest of the world,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the committee. “That all changes with the Invest in America Act, transformational legislation that moves our country into a new era of smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure that fits our changing economy and society.”

A surface transportation reauthorization bill passed through Rep. Peter DeFazio's, D-Ore., House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Thursday night.

However, some groups were disappointed that efforts weren’t bipartisan.

“We are disappointed that the T&I Committee mark-up did not produce a bill that has bipartisan support,” said Jim Tymon, CEO of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Consideration of the five-year bill included the proposal of over 170 amendments over two full days. In the end, 23 Democratic amendments and 34 Republican amendments were passed. Overall funding levels were unchanged.

“While we appreciate that the Invest in America Act recognizes the challenging financial situation facing state DOTs due to the nation’s COVID-19 response, the bill does not address many priorities identified by state DOTs and in some cases will make it more difficult for states to address critical transportation challenges,” Tymon said.

The House bill also includes climate initiatives such as $350 million in annual grants to support electrical vehicle charging and hydrogen fueling

“Democrats and Republicans can both agree on things like resilience and climate change,” Tymon said. “These programs need to be updated to make sure we are building infrastructure in a way that takes into account climate change and that we’re building it a more resilient way so that when we have extreme weather events, the infrastructure isn’t damaged to the extent that we see today.”

Republicans were upset with the process of the bill, saying they were left out of the conversation.

Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the committee's top Republican, called the bill a “my way or the highway bill” and not a “serious bipartisan effort.” Graves introduced his own surface transportation bill called the Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform, Technology & Efficient Review Act, which was voted down during the hearing, 35-25.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R- Ill., said as the hearing started on Wednesday that a partisan bill would slow down the process for completing a surface reauthorization bill.

“The most disappointing part about this isn’t that any individual members’ priorities may have been left out, but that this process will lead to failure,” Davis said. “It will fail our state departments’ of transportation who are struggling with lost revenues due to government-mandated stay-at-home orders.”

The Invest in America Act provides $411 billion over five years for a depleted Highway Trust Fund, which is a 46% increase over existing funding which is set to expire in September. The act also gives money for transit programs including $105 billion for transit programs under the Federal Transit Administration.

A $287 billion federal surface transportation bill approved by a Senate committee does not address transit. That bill won initial approval by a unanimous 21-0 vote.

The bill also streamlines rules for approval under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act because the threshold would be raised under which projects are required to secure multiple credit rating agency options.

It clarifies that the proceeds of a secured loan under TIFIA be considered part of the non-federal share of a project if the loan is repayable from non-federal funds.

Territories like Puerto Rico also would be allowed to use funds made available under this section for the non-federal match under TIFIA.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that her Moving Forward Package, which includes House’s surface transportation bill, will be voted on by the House July 1 or 2.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., announced that included in that legislation will be provisions to permanently reinstate Build America Bonds and tax-exempt advance refunding bonds as well as to expand the issuance of private activity bonds.

Tymon expects the House’s infrastructure package to pass along partisan lines.

Neal noted that President Trump has said he favors financing the package with $2 trillion in borrowed money.

Dealer groups were pleased to see bond provisions included in the House’s larger infrastructure bill. The Bond Dealers of America emphasized that it wanted Build America Bonds to be unconstrained from sequestration. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association said it was critical to close the infrastructure funding gap, which has been exacerbated by financial pressures caused by the coronavirus.

President Donald Trump has also gotten into the game, readying a possible $1 trillion dollar infrastructure plan, according to Bloomberg. Tymon expects the White House to release an infrastructure bill or surface transportation reauthorization bill in the next few weeks and said it could give momentum to the Senate.

“Maybe the administration releasing their proposal will help move things along in the Senate,” Tymon said.

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