After President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, his administration will encounter a Congress operating along rigid political lines following the U.S. House’s second impeachment of outgoing President Donald Trump.
Yet, even as they acknowledge the strained political atmosphere, a number of lawmakers and transportation stakeholders express optimism about the potential for advancing various infrastructure funding initiatives this year.
“Once we have the president-elect formally installed and we can roll up our sleeves and get back to work, I think people are going to be looking for opportunities to deal with substance,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who sits on the Ways and Means tax policy panel, told reporters Jan. 12.
“We have many things that we need to do. And we can’t continually be spun up dealing with [Trump’s] toxic legacy. I think infrastructure is an area that everybody can identify as being important,” Blumenauer continued. “There is an opportunity with the new administration, working with the new Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate to do something that is broad enough that is inclusive, that there will be opportunities for people around the country and people in both parties to engage.”
Sharing Blumenauer’s sentiment is fellow Oregonian, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
DeFazio emphasized his eagerness to work with Biden’s White House. The chairman has an expectation that Biden’s team, especially Transportation Secretary-designee Pete Buttigieg and the Democrat-led Senate, will proceed with “transformational legislation that not only finally addresses our country’s infrastructure crisis, but also tackles climate change and creates millions of jobs.”
With DeFazio at the helm, the committee will again schedule consideration of climate change-centric transportation measures. On the Senate side, the incoming chairman of the highway policy committee, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), affirmed a willingness to advance substantive legislation that would address funding woes throughout mobility grids.
“Over the past four years, ‘Infrastructure Week’ has become a meme for the outgoing administration,” said Carper this month. “I have confidence that will change under [Buttigieg’s] leadership. He has what it takes to deliver on the promise of building back better.”
Besides Carper and Democratic leaders, Buttigieg has met with Republicans on committees with transportation policy authority. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a member of the Commerce Committee, which oversees trucking regulations, announced recently, “Looking forward to working with [Buttigieg] to maintain Indiana’s status as the ‘Crossroads of America’ and support critical Hoosier infrastructure projects.”
Biden’s transportation team has signaled interest in approving an economic package that would include funding for sectors such as aviation, transit and supply chain industries. Separately, the new administration is expected to reveal a comprehensive infrastructure policy package, in addition to provisions meant to guide Congress’ update of the country’s central highway policy law. That law’s authorization expires in September.
The new leadership dynamics in Washington point to a real potential for advancing transformative legislation during Biden’s tenure, say several infrastructure funding proponents. Failing to dedicate sustainable funding for repairing and modernizing infrastructure projects will lead to an economic downturn, argued the American Society of Civil Engineers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s the No. 1 way to raise productivity, to create jobs, and drive up incomes in a hurry,” Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Jan. 12. He observed that a significant number of lawmakers from both parties continue to exert varying degrees of animus toward each other as Democrats prepare to manage both chambers by narrow majorities immediately after the inauguration.
Added Donohue: “Our lawmakers should enact a fiscally and environmentally responsive and responsible infrastructure package that focuses on urgent needs like roads, bridges, modernizes our critical networks and upgrades and expands technology like broadband. … It might build some goodwill for bipartisan progress on other priorities.”
The groups support raising the federal fuel tax rate to generate additional revenue for infrastructure projects. Congress approved the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax in 1993.
For Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne, the attacks at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 should not discourage progress on infrastructure legislation: “We’re still looking forward to the Biden administration pushing an additional COVID[-19] relief bill that is likely to include infrastructure investment, particularly emergency funding for public transit.”
“We’re also looking forward to a new long-term surface transportation authorization bill from Congress including the exciting bill passed by the House and a new bill written by the incoming chairman and ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee,” Osborne told Transport Topics. “We expect this bill to be much more visionary and sympathetic to the needs of people outside of a car than the bill this committee passed in 2019.”