By Dean Franks, senior vice president, congressional relations, ARTBA.

Democrats in the House of Representatives Jan. 29 released their vision for a broad infrastructure package called “Moving Forward Framework.”  The five-year, $760 billion initiative is scant on details, but lays out policy principles and funding levels for multiple programs.

The centerpiece and largest investment is the proposed $489 billion, five-year surface transportation bill. It was authored by House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and includes:

  • $319 billion for highway investments
  • $105 billion for public transportation improvements
  • $55 billion for rail investments
  • $10 billion for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration programs

For core Highway Trust Fund (HTF)-supported highway and public transportation programs, as well as the Capitol Investment Grant transit program that is supported by the federal General Fund, the House plan would increase investment by $137 billion – a 48 percent increase above the 2015 FAST Act surface transportation law funding levels.  However, growth in federal public transportation investments would far outpace highway spending as a percentage increase in funding. The chart below shows a macro-comparison of the House Democrats plan to the five-year funding levels approved in the FAST Act.

The plan was released a day after House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Highways and Transit Subcommittee Ranking Member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) issued a press statement laying out six principles for a new surface transportation bill. They are:

  • Addressing the long-term sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund
  • Incorporating innovative developments in technology to improve our infrastructure
  • Streamlining the project delivery process to maximize available funding
  • Addressing the infrastructure needs of America’s rural communities
  • Prioritizing core programs and functions of our existing federal surface transportation programs
  • Ensuring state flexibility

“The separate release of principles from members of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is the latest in a long list of reminders that improving America’s transportation infrastructure network remains an area for common ground,” ARTBA President Dave Bauer said.

Both Democratic and Republican plans call for HTF solvency as a priority, but neither details how they want that to happen. Democrats call for “user-based mechanisms”, while Republicans point out the current reliance on motor fuel user fees is not a long-term solution. At a press conference to roll out the plan, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said it is premature to talk about how to pay for the package until there is agreement with the White House. Neal is trying to broker a deal with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Specific modal programmatic provisions the House Democrats highlighted in their framework document of interest to ARTBA members include:

Highways:  $319 Billion

  • Investment to focus on vital infrastructure projects of regional or national significance, including bridges and targeted funding for rural and disadvantaged communities.
  • Fix-It-First:  Modifies formula program to further prioritize maintenance of existing infrastructure (While this has been a long-held principle for some in the Democratic party, over 75 percent of federal funding already goes towards improving existing roadways.).
  • Project Financing: Continues TIFIA program funding, while streamlining the application process and increasing transparency.
  • Performance Measures: Modifies performance measures to strength State accountability
  • Workforce Development: Invests in workforce development programs.
  • Climate: The plan places an emphasis on climate issues, by having greenhouse gas emissions considered in both planning and project selection.  Also, the plan does not contain a section on project streamlining or permitting reform.
  • Resiliency: Ensures life-cycle is considered as a decision-making factor.
  • New User Fees: Authorizes a national, multi-year pilot program to ensure viable collection of fees through a vehicle-miles travelled fee.
  • Expands research and innovation programs to focus on smart infrastructure and new technologies, including the development of innovative materials.

Highway Safety$10 billion

  • Modifies Highway Safety Improvement Program to provide additional grant funding to States for safety programs.
  • Prioritizes grants around greatest safety risks and increases transparency.

Project Financing

  • Provides taxable bonds, including Build America Bonds and bonds that provide a tax credit rather than tax-free interest, for state and local governments.
  • Expands the cap on Private Activity Bonds for qualified highway or surface freight transfer facilities.
  • Restoration of Advanced Refunding, which allows State and local government to use one bond’s proceeds to replace existing bonds.
  • Expands existing tax credits and creates new tax credits across all sectors of infrastructure.

 Transit:  $105 billion

  • Capital Investment Grant program:  Streamlines project delivery to ensure good projects are approved quickly, prioritizing capacity-building and mitigation of greenhouse gasses.
  • Supports funding for development of new routes.
  • Buy America: Aims to ensure manufacturers are consistent in how they measure domestically produced materials and products.

 Rail: $55 billion

  • Expands funding to address backlog in rail and facility investments.
  • Supports new or improved passenger rail corridors.

 Airports:  $30 billion

  • Increases the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) cap and indexes it to inflation, allowing for increased investment in airports.
  • Creates Airport and Airway Investment Program focusing on airport modernization and capacity increases.
  • Advances increased use of drones to assist in construction of transportation projects.

Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund

  • Ensures all revenue in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund can be spent on operation and maintenance.

Water Resources: $7 billion

  • Invests in critical construction of backlogged water resources development projects approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

ARTBA will continue working with both Democrats and Republicans in the House to move a package forward that responds to the priorities of association members and can win enough votes to pass in the full chamber.

Whatever passes in the House will then have to be reconciled with what emerges from the GOP-led Senate.  The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July 2019 passed the highway portion of a new surface transportation bill.  ARTBA believes a full surface transportation bill may come to the Senate floor for debate soon after the impeachment trial concludes.

Read the full plan and a fact sheet released by the Democrats.  See the press release on the GOP proposal.

ARTBA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lauren Schapker contributed to this report.