As President Joe Biden proceeds in negotiations with a bipartisan group of 21 U.S. Senators on a wide-ranging infrastructure package, new information has emerged about major surface transportation legislation moving in the House on a separate path that could eventually become an important part of a broader multi-sector infrastructure bill.
The $547-billion INVEST in America Act, which cleared the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on June 10, is heading for a late June floor vote.
An updated version of the massive highway-transit-rail bill, dated June 18, has a key addition: a revenue provision.
It calls for transferring $148 billion to the ailing Highway Trust Fund from the federal government’s general fund. That total includes $109 billion for the trust fund’s highway account and $39 billion for its transit account, according to Politico.
The bill, whose full title is the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act, is largely the product of House Democrats.
Construction and transportation officials say the $148 billion would let the trust fund support the funding levels authorized in the INVEST Act.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said in an email, “We will see if this proposal wins congressional support, especially in light of growing signs the Administration is eager to pursue new infrastructure investments via the [budget] reconciliation process instead of via a more bipartisan approach.”
Congress has used similar funding shifts in other surface transportation measures in recent years. According to a Congressional Research Service report, since September 2008, Congress has transferred $158 billion to the trust fund, mostly from the general fund.
Of that total, $83.6 billion has been shifted under the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, and that statute’s one-year extension. That extension is slated to expire Sept. 30.
Susan Howard, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ program director for transportation finance, said via email that she isn’t yet certain how the broader infrastructure plan that is the subject of White House-Senate talks and the surface transportation measure will fit together.
“Right now, they seem to be going on parallel tracks,” Howard says. “At some point, they may overlap or converge.”
Moreover, she says it is still “a guessing game in terms of what gets done in an infrastructure bill vs. budget reconciliation vs. [transportation] reauthorization.”
But Howard adds, “Regardless of what happens, it’s significant that Congress and the administration are willing to give this high level of attention to the nation’s transportation investment needs.”
The infrastructure talks came up several times during a June 21 press briefing by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who repeated past statements from Biden and other administration officials that, in the search for “pay-fors” for an infrastructure funding proposal, increasing the federal gas tax is off the table.
She said in-person meetings with senators are likely during the week of June 21. “He’s ready to roll up his sleeves," Psaki said of Biden. "The door to the Oval Office is always open and he’ll be deeply involved and engaged in these negotiations over the coming days."
More broadly, she said that Biden “sees this as a process that has multiple paths forward, and the reconciliation process, which is already under way, being led by the budget committees in Congress, is an important part of that.“
Psaki also said that Biden “is encouraged that Democrats and Republicans are continuing to discuss a path forward on rebuilding our roads, our railways and our bridges.”
She added that the senators’ proposal, about $579 billion in new funds over five years, is "nearly double” the final proposal that Republican senators advanced earlier in June. Biden turned down the GOP offer on June 8, saying it was too low. That ended those talks.
Meanwhile, the group of bipartisan senators, initially numbering 10 and later growing to 21, has been developing an alternative proposal, but has yet to release details. AASHTO's Howard says the bipartisan group's proposal "is heavy on the financing side, less so on the direct funding side."
Psaki said that Biden is "encouraged that ... the investments have increased.” Still, she added that the president “has some questions about the pay-fors, noting that he "has a red line about the gas tax and raising taxes on individuals making less than $400,000 a year.”
Psaki also said, “He does not feel the time is unlimited” and sees it as a matter of weeks remaining to get a deal done.