Senate Lawmakers Release $304B Bipartisan Roads Proposal

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The draft legislation includes new grant funding for areas like electric vehicle infrastructure and rural projects. It comes as the White House struggles to win over Republican support for a much broader infrastructure package.

Lawmakers on a Senate committee that deals with infrastructure on Saturday released a bipartisan, $303.5 billion draft proposal to reauthorize the main federal program that provides funding for highways, roads and bridges.

In addition to supplying bedrock federal dollars for roads, the legislation would provide new grant funding in a number of areas—including for electric vehicle infrastructure, efforts to make the nation's infrastructure more "resilient" to extreme weather, climate change and natural disasters, and for projects in rural regions. 

"Not only will this comprehensive, bipartisan legislation help us rebuild and repair America’s surface transportation system, but it will also help us build new transportation infrastructure," said U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, who is the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The measure comes as the law that currently guides this spending is set to expire Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is trying to build support for a much broader infrastructure package, in the ballpark of $2 trillion, but has so far been unable to strike an agreement with Republicans on that front. And talks between the two sides appear to be increasingly strained. The White House plan extends to areas other than roads and transportation, like waterworks and broadband.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works panel, characterized the road and bridge funding proposal that he and others put forward over the weekend as a step toward the more ambitious agenda that President Biden is advocating for and also pointed to the upcoming deadline.

“We must reauthorize the surface transportation bill before its current authorization expires," he said. "It is a vital foundation for President Biden’s American Jobs Plan."

Carper described the funding level in the roads measure as a "historic high."

The legislation would cover five federal fiscal years, from 2022 to 2026. The committee plans to mark up the draft this Wednesday, May 26.

The lawmakers who unveiled the bill said it includes a more than 34% increase in funding compared to the last authorization, the 2015 FAST Act, a five-year law extended last year. Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, noted on Twitter that the bill's spending over five fiscal years would be 22% above inflation-adjusted baseline spending projections from the Congressional Budget Office.

Democrats highlighted parts of the bill meant to reduce emissions, build resilience and improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

The draft text calls for the Transportation Department to initiate a grant program to fund charging infrastructure for vehicles powered by electricity and other alternative fuels. It would provide $500 million for each year, over the five years for these types of grants.

Another section of the bill would establish a funding program meant to help states improve the resiliency of their transportation infrastructure. This initiative would involve funding distributed based on a formula, as well as competitive grants. There would be $1.4 billion available over five years for competitive awards.

With the resilience program, there's a financial perk to promote planning. If a state, locality or other eligible grant recipient meets certain voluntary, resilience planning guidelines, they can see the required share of matching funds that they have to put up to access the federal money reduced by as much as 10%.

There's also about $500 million for planning and construction grants under a pilot program that would focus on removing or retrofitting highways and other structures that create barriers within communities, in terms of how people move around and with economic development.

Highways built in and around cities between the 1950s and 1970s often carved through minority neighborhoods, displacing residents, leaving communities physically divided and adding to pollution. In recent years, cities like Akron, Ohio and Syracuse, New York, have looked for ways to reverse the legacy of this earlier road building era. The grant program in the road bill would lend support to projects of this sort.

Republicans touted provisions in the draft bill plan intended to provide funding to rural areas and to give states flexibility with federal guidelines. Notably, the bill would establish a rural surface transportation grant program, with a total of around $2 billion in grants available over the five years covered by the bill.

"We are going big, proposing the largest surface transportation reauthorization package in history,” said U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota, the top Republican on the committee's Transportation Infrastructure subcommittee. 

“Like any successful collaborative effort, neither side got everything they want, but I am glad we were able to find common ground and put forward a bipartisan plan to rebuild and revive America’s roads and bridges," he added.

Cramer emphasized that the bill would use the method currently in place for distributing "formula" funding and said this would ensure that the money is distributed equitably. He also said it would reduce "bureaucratic regulations" that bog down projects.

The surface transportation program that the bill is apart of also covers transit. A different Senate panel, the Banking Committee is responsible for that part of the legislation. The Senate Finance Committee takes the lead on tax-related provisions and how to cover the cost.

For years, federal gas tax collections, the primary source of revenue for the federal Highway Trust Fund, have fallen short of the surface transportation spending that the account is supposed to cover.

There's some interest in both parties in looking at new ways to raise transportation revenue, including potentially a charge on vehicle-miles traveled. But, so far, Democrats and Republicans haven't agreed on a plan to shore up the fund.

To pay for his infrastructure plan, Biden has proposed higher taxes on corporations. Republicans have balked at this option.

Last week, the White House trimmed the size of Biden's proposal to $1.7 trillion from around $2.3 trillion in an attempt to find a middle ground with GOP lawmakers. Republicans last month proposed $568 billion of spending, with $299 billion for roads and bridges.

But a spokesperson for Capito, the lawmaker who has served as a lead Republican negotiator on infrastructure, indicated that the revised White House proposal is still "well above" any dollar amount that could win bipartisan support in Congress.

The spokesperson added that there are still "vast differences" between the White House and Senate Republicans on the issue and that the groups "seem further apart" after two meetings with White House staff than after an earlier meeting with Biden.

Editor's note: This story was updated after publication with additional information about the contents of the bill.

Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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