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117th Congress Preview: Transportation

By Becky Weber

The last two Presidents, President Obama and President Trump, both highlighted infrastructure as a high priority in their administrations and both were largely unable to accomplish anything but the status quo and making a few tweaks to existing federal transportation programs.  The stone wall that thwarted both their plans was the perennial issue of agreeing with Congress on how to raise the revenue to pay for the huge increased investments both Presidents supported.  President-elect Biden will be the third successive President to make infrastructure a high priority, even a first 100 days high priority, with his Build Back Better policy proposal.  However, the stone wall his predecessors ran into is still standing in the way and will remain the biggest hurdle to get over to achieve the goal.  The $2 trillion dollar question is whether President-elect Biden will be able to work with Congress to fund his $2 trillion dreams.

President-elect Biden’s infrastructure proposal, Build Back Better, is an ambitious $2 trillion plan for federal investment in what I call “big I” infrastructure, beyond typical roads, bridges, rail, transit, and airports.  It also includes water systems, brownfields, electricity grids, ports, universal broadband, clean vehicle manufacturing, schools, housing, buildings, and agriculture.  As it relates to transportation investments which usually drive most infrastructure proposals, the plan’s goals are almost exclusively focused on radical transformation of the energy sources that power the transportation sector from petroleum based to zero emission sources.  The plan sets a goal of making all public transit zero emission in ten years in cities over 100,000, achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector with clean American-made electricity by 2035, making all school buses zero emission by 2030, building 500,000 electric charging stations, converting all public sector vehicle fleets to zero emission in ten years and investing in clean energy technologies to drive down costs.  “Amtrak Joe”, as the President-elect is sometimes called, is also proposing a second great railroad revival.

He has chosen a Transportation Secretary nominee without a deep background in transportation in former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.  Despite this, both President-elect Biden and Mayor Buttigieg made infrastructure a key aspect of their presidential campaigns, and both focused on climate goals through their plans.  Mayor Buttigieg’s infrastructure proposal, the Vision Zero Initiative, emphasized biking, walking, public transit and overhauling of the existing federal fuel tax.  Both men also believe the federal focus should be on fixing and improving existing infrastructure.  Buttigieg campaigned on doubling BUILD grants and making the federal program more cost-effective through establishing a Manhattan Project-styled research commission to improve the longevity of road pavement to decrease the need for future maintenance.

With regard to revenue options, President-elect Biden proposes to fund the $2 trillion proposal by an increase in the corporate tax rate to 28% and a minimum 15% tax on all earnings reported to Wall Street to reduce corporate tax loopholes.  Rolling back the tax reform Congress passed just two years ago however will prove daunting with such a slim majority in the House and a 50/50 Senate.  Biden has also stated a willingness to increase passenger facility charges (PFCs) for air travel.  Both he and Buttigieg have been lukewarm on increasing the federal fuel tax while Buttigieg has expressed willingness to consider public/private funding options and a vehicle miles travelled (VMT) tax.  Buttigieg also supports some type of carbon pricing concept.

President-elect Biden and his Secretary of Transportation nominee both want to stop “Infrastructure Week” from being a long-running joke in Washington.  We can expect a robust proposal as early as February from the administration and we expect Democratic House and Senate congressional leaders to eagerly begin deliberations.  What remains to be seen is whether the three entities can work together to vault the stone wall of how to pay for it.