Democrats offer priorities via stand-alone infrastructure bills

Bills would create fund to serve as dedicated financial stream for Amtrak, authorize $50 billion to address wastewater infrastructure

Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a news release that his bill would provide a dedicated funding stream to Amtrak akin to what every other mode of transportation infrastructure has.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a news release that his bill would provide a dedicated funding stream to Amtrak akin to what every other mode of transportation infrastructure has. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 24, 2021 at 10:00am

With a hodgepodge of bills proposing massive investments in infrastructure as disparate as rail and water, Democrats aren’t waiting for President Joe Biden to send out his infrastructure plan to signal their intent: Go big or go home.

Even as Biden’s economic advisers reportedly prepare an infrastructure bill expected to cost as much as $3 trillion, lawmakers are weighing in with an array of ambitious, often mode-specific bills. Some measures have been revived from 116th Congress with an expectation of support from a Democratic administration that has backed ambitious infrastructure plans. 

One of the latest bills, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., would create a Passenger Rail Trust Fund to serve as a dedicated funding stream for Amtrak, the nation’s passenger railroad, providing $5.4 billion annually in grants for repairs, fleet modernization and other needs. Of that amount, 40 percent would go to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and 60 percent would go to the company’s National Network.

In a news release, Blumenthal said that his bill would provide a dedicated funding stream to Amtrak akin to what every other mode of transportation infrastructure has. Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn called the bill a “game changer.”

Amtrak has traditionally relied upon annual appropriations to help pay for operations, including between $1.5 billion and nearly $2 billion in recent years. It was also one of the beneficiaries of multiple bills last year aimed at fighting the economic impact of the coronavirus. In all, Congress provided more than $3.5 billion in additional dollars related to the pandemic, including $1.5 billion in the most recent $1.9 trillion bill.

Wastewater

Separately, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., joined Democratic colleagues last week to introduce a bill that would authorize $50 billion over five years to address wastewater infrastructure. That sum includes $40 billion over five years for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans, loan subsidizations and grants for wastewater infrastructure.

Currently, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund receives appropriations of about $1.6 billion a year. A bill by Senate Democrats to be marked up Wednesday would allocate $14.5 billion over five years.

Some of the proposals being pushed are more focused on policy than financial investment.

In late February, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., rolled out four bills that he said would help create a “transportation transformation” in the country. Among other proposals, the legislation included a bill establishing goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the national highway system, another that would create an EPA grant program to electrify diesel-powered transport refrigeration units and one that would dedicate $500 million in grants annually to improve walking and biking infrastructure.

The bills amount to wish lists lawmakers hope to fold into the forthcoming infrastructure bill, and are more meaningful during a year when “infrastructure week” is still hoped to be more than a joke. Also Tuesday, Rep. Norma J. Torres, D-Calif., introduced a bill aimed at ensuring Department of Transportation funding is distributed equitably — a mission that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly mentioned as a priority.

They also come in advance of two hearings this week on infrastructure. The first, by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is set for Wednesday. The second, a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that will feature Buttigieg as its only witness, is set for Thursday. 

But the bills come as Republicans are increasingly hesitant about spending levels, though one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., co-sponsored the DeFazio bill. 

Republicans have expressed reluctance about measures Democrats are mentioning to raise money to pay for such a bill, such as raising taxes on all individual income above $400,000. 

“You can’t go around saying that bills have to be paid for and then never support any pay-fors,” said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Tuesday.

Democrats are also mulling using reconciliation to pass a bigger bill, though DeFazio and others are reluctant to do so, saying it will hamstring their efforts to include earmarks and major policy provisions in the bill. 

A New York Times report on the Biden proposal published Monday said Biden’s plan would include not just highways, bridges and physical infrastructure, but so-called human infrastructure, spending on education, universal pre-K and free community college.

“The scope of what I'm hearing is much greater than what I envisioned of infrastructure,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who serves as ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Blumenthal on Tuesday said Congress has little choice but to make a massive investment. 

“The investment has to be made,” he said. “It is a moral imperative ... It’s hard for us, but this kind of investment is of the magnitude, the scope and scale that needs to be done.”

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