House spending bill would boost transit, Amtrak, highways

With Republicans in charge of the Senate and White House, it’s unlikely that all of the measure’s provisions will become law

A passenger wearing a face mask boards a Metro Red Line subway train in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 2020.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A passenger wearing a face mask boards a Metro Red Line subway train in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 4:12pm

House Democrats’ newest proposal for coronavirus recovery spending would use federal law to compel passengers and workers on Amtrak, transit and airplanes to wear face masks, and would give an additional $15.75 billion to transit, allocate $15 billion for highway spending and increase the federal share for highway projects to 100 percent. 

The bill — House Democrats’ first salvo in the next tranche of federal spending to combat the pandemic-driven economic downturn — spends significantly less on transportation than the roughly $2 trillion stimulus bill passed in March. Still, it includes provisions that would satisfy labor unions that for months have demanded safer working conditions. It also would impose cleaning requirements on airlines and Amtrak.

With Republicans in charge of the Senate and the White House, the prospects for all of the bill’s provisions becoming law are dim. Still, it represents an initial list of demands from the House majority. 

[Transport workers give low marks to federal virus protection]

If passed, it could also provide some level of comfort to aviation workers who worry that their jobs could be in jeopardy on Sept. 30. The $2 trillion law required that airlines receiving aid under it not lay off workers until after that date. The House bill would change that, saying that airlines cannot lay off workers until the financial aid they received from the federal government is “fully exhausted.”

It includes no specific earmarks for airlines, which received some $61 billion in grants and loans in the earlier bill, but would include an additional $15.75 billion for transit, which received $25 billion in the earlier bill. 

Last week, the American Public Transportation Association asked for an additional $23.8 billion for public transit. In a conference call Tuesday, Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of APTA, said while the organization was “very appreciative” that the $15.75 billion was included in the bill, the figure “falls short of what we know the needs to be.”

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The bill would also dip into the Treasury’s General Fund to pay for highways and airports. 

It provides $15 billion from the general fund for highways, and would change current highway spending law to increase the federal government’s share of highway projects to “up to 100 percent,” including for the cost of administration and operations such as the salaries of employees or contractors. 

And it includes language to allow the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to borrow from the General Fund in order to meet its obligations. 

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, would get $75 million for janitorial services through Sept. 30, 2022, to “prevent, prepare for, and respond” to pandemics, including $1 million to study the risk of pathogen recirculation in airplane cabins and determine how to mitigate that risk.

The House bill also includes a pet provision of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., who has long been outraged by air carriers outsourcing maintenance to overseas vendors. The House bill would limit the ability of passenger air carriers who receive federal aid to spend any of that money on certain maintenance work done outside the United States. 

DeFazio has also criticized the Department of Transportation for failing to implement a Government Accountability Office recommendation that it create a National Aviation Preparedness Plan that would allow it to react nimbly to prevent the spread of communicable disease. The House bill requires such a plan, tasking airports and air carriers with providing at-risk employees with appropriate personal protective equipment and urging increased coordination between airports, air carriers and agencies including the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The bill requires aircraft, Amtrak and facilities related to both modes to be cleaned, disinfected and sanitized in accordance with CDC guidance. 

And, until the pandemic is no longer a national emergency, it requires passengers and crew on transit agencies in cities with at least 500,000 people to wear masks. The carriers would also be required to make gloves, sanitizers and sanitizing wipes available to employees. A provision to require air traffic controllers to also wear masks and have access to protective gear such as hand sanitizer for the duration of the pandemic is also in the bill. 

The Federal Aviation Administration would get $75 million for janitorial services through Sept. 30, 2022, to “prevent, prepare for, and respond” to pandemics, including $1 million to study the risk of pathogen recirculation in airplane cabins and determine how to mitigate that risk.

The bill includes language to allow the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to borrow from the General Fund in order to meet its obligations. 

It provides $15 billion from the general fund for highways, and would change current law to increase the federal government’s share of highway projects to “up to 100 percent,” including for the cost of administration and operations such as the salaries of employees or contractors.