After a two-day marathon voting session, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a measure drafted by Democrats that would provide $494 billion for highway, transit and rail programs over the next five years, with an emphasis on reducing carbon emissions and building projects that can better withstand floods and other natural disasters.

The transportation measure, which committee members approved by voice vote, late June 18, would increase highway and transit funding by 46% over current levels and also provide a significant boost for rail funds. [View text of substitute text of bill, before amendments here.]

The measure also is the centerpiece of Democrats’ latest version of a broader $1.5-trillion infrastructure package, which party leaders announced earlier in the day. That wide-ranging measure, similar to a framework that party leaders unveiled in January, also has funds for water, energy, broadband, schools and other sectors.

The transportation legislation—the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation, or INVEST, in America Act—next will move before the full House, where the chamber’s Democratic majority will ensure its passage, though perhaps with more amendments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated that the entire $1.5-trillion infrastructure package, including the transportation measure, could be on the House floor before July 4.

Congress must pass a new surface transportation measure by Sept. 30, when the current statute, the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act expires.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the INVEST in America bill's chief architect, called the measure "a transformational bill" that aims to "move our country into the 21st Century with a smarter, safer, more resilient infrastructure."

Funding breakdown

The bill's main elements are $319 billion for highways, $105 billion for transit: $60 billion for rail—mainly passenger rail—and $10 billion for highway safety.

To help states that are struggling with shortfalls in transportation revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, nonfederal matching funds would not be required to access the bill's $83.1 billion for highway and transit funding in fiscal year 2021.

In addition, it allows state transportation departments and local agencies to use $22 billion of the $83.1 billion for payroll or other operating expenses—applications that are typically prohibited for such funds.

In the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously cleared a $287-billion highway-only measure in July 2019. That funding represents a 27% increase over the FAST Act's level for highways.

The Environment and Public Works' proposal has yet to advance to the Senate floor and still needs provisions from other Senate panels that are responsible for transit and highway safety provisions. Also still to come is a revenue title, from the Finance Committee.

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's top Republican, Sam Graves of Missouri, criticized the INVEST bill for "overreaching and heavy-handed mandates. Graves said the legislation would end up "transforming every single core infrastructure program into a climate change program."

He also slammed Democrats for generally leaving GOP lawmakers out of the drafting of the measure, which he referred to as "the majority's 'my way or the highway' bill."

Graves and his GOP colleagues offered an alternative bill, the Surface Transportation Advanced through Reform Technology and Efficient Review, or STARTER, Act. It includes provisions that focus on such areas as core transportation accounts, rural infrastructure needs and accelerating projects' environmental reviews.

Possible 'pay-fors'

The proposed legislation is silent regarding the pivotal issue for all surface transportation bills—how to raise the revenue to fully fund it. That omission was expected, because the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s jurisdiction doesn’t include revenue.

DeFazio has said it will take an estimated $138-billion addition to the Highway Trust Fund to fully fund the INVEST in America bill.

At a press briefing earlier on June 18, Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of  the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, discussed several sources for paying for infrastructure. Neal said Democrats plan to revive the popular, but now expired, Build America Bonds program, and also use private-activity bonds—which are a current financing tool—and other types of borrowing.

The federally subsidized, taxable Build America Bonds were created in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and were aimed at helping state and local governments gain access to low-cost financing for infrastructure. More than $180 billion worth of the bonds were issued before the program lapsed Dec. 31, 2010.

Pelosi said that borrowing makes sense in the current financial environment. She told reporters that “with the interest rates where they are now, there’s never been a better time for us to go big, to think big, as the head of the Fed has said to us.”

The Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee’s approval of the INVEST in America bill came after the panel considered 177 amendments to what was initially an 864-page piece of legislation.

As lawmakers slogged through the proposals, the committee adopted 34 riders proposed by Republicans and 23 from Democrats, those figures belie the Democrats' stamp on the end product. Indeed, votes on many of the other amendments broke generally along party lines.

AASHTO, AGC, ACEC reactions

Some transportation and construction groups faulted the INVEST bill for not including much Republican input. Jim Tymon, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' executive director, said in a statement, "We are disappointed that the T&I Committee markup did not produce a bill that has bipartisan support." Tymon pointed to the Senate committee's unanimously approved highway bill as evidence that bipartisan legislation is possible.

He did welcome the INVEST bill's provisions aimed at bolstering state DOTs' finances in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but also said favorable things about the Republicans' STARTER bill, noting that it includes some AASHTO priorities.

Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said via email, "We remain encouraged that House Democrats are committed to increasing investments in our transportation network, but worry that many of the regulatory requirements included in the bill would undermine the benefits of those investments."

For example, Turmail cites the bill's lack of provisions providing further "streamlining" of projects' regulatory reviews.

The American Council of Engineering Companies issued a statement supporting the INVEST bill, noting its "robust" size and help for state DOTs' strained budgets.

ACEC added that "the funding and programs in this bill have the potential to unlock the modernization of our highways, bridges and public transit networks." But it, too, called for taking a more bipartisan approach as the legislative process unfolds.