The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will kick off its effort to boost highway and transit spending this year with a hearing Feb. 7 to emphasize the cost of delaying upgrades to aging roads, bridges, transit systems and airports.
“What happens if the rail tunnels under the Hudson River fail, what happens when the tunnel under Baltimore fails, built in the Civil War?” Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., told CQ last week during an interview. “What happens when two bridges, one 89 years old and one 60 years, over the Columbia River, they’re going to fail during an earthquake. And then I-5 is cut off?
“We need to begin thinking about what are the costs and the potential for calamity if we don’t make these investments,” he said.
DeFazio said Democrats want to pass a package before this summer that supplements the 2015 FAST Act, a five-year transportation law that runs through the end of September 2020.
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The plan relies on the Ways and Means Committee to find the funding for new projects and plug a shortfall between the amount spent now from the Highway Trust Fund and the revenue generated from the federal gas tax, which was last raised in 1993.
That shortfall is currently supported by the general budget.
“We will look at marking up an authorization pretty much working with the existing FAST Act, but make some changes that I think need to be made short term, before we can even get into the next six-year bill. And then send that over to the Ways and Means Committee and have them fill in the money,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio has recommended what he calls a “penny for progress”: Indexing the existing gas and diesel tax to inflation and capping increases at no more than 1.5 cents a gallon per year. He then proposes issuing 30-year bonds backed by the revenue.
“We could bond over $500 billion over a number of years. That fills in the hole in the trust fund,” DeFazio said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier this month said it would support increasing the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon over five years.
DeFazio said his plan would support issuing $33 billion a year in bonds for about 13 years to address a backlog in projects to bring roads and transit up to a “state of good repair.” Beyond that time frame, he said the use of electric and other alternative fuel vehicles may have reached a tipping point, and government will need to move to a system based on the number of miles a vehicle travels rather than the gas consumed.
Before that happens, however, DeFazio said there needs to be a national pilot program to test such a system. The program should include “congestion pricing” that charges a vehicle using crowded roads around a city at rush hour more than a rural resident traveling a largely empty highway, he said.
The hearing on Feb. 7 will be held in the Capitol Visitors Center because several House committee rooms are being renovated, and will come two days after President Donald Trump is to deliver his rescheduled State of the Union address.
DeFazio said he believed Democrats and Republicans can work together with Trump.
“He wants to do infrastructure, I want to do infrastructure, the country needs infrastructure, there’s bipartisan consensus that we need infrastructure,” DeFazio said. “I think it’s one place where we ought to be able to lay aside our differences and get it done.”
Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has urged Trump to call for a transportation bill in his State of the Union speech, saying it would provide an incentive for Republicans to get on board.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she and Trump discussed infrastructure during a call on Monday setting the date for the State of the Union.
“We talked a bit about issues we could work together on — infrastructure, for example. That always comes up in our conversations,” Pelosi told reporters Monday evening.