Biden plan’s transportation funds would be on top of highway bill

A surface transportation bill is due for reauthorization Sept 30. Biden says his proposal is for a one-time investment.

President Joe Biden’s plan proposes more spending on transit and Amtrak than on highways. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Joe Biden’s plan proposes more spending on transit and Amtrak than on highways. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 31, 2021 at 2:33pm

The $115 billion investment in bridges, highways and roads proposed in President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan would come in addition to spending to be included in a surface transportation reauthorization due Sept. 30, a Transportation Department official confirmed Wednesday.

The current highway bill, a one-year extension of the 2015 law, will expire Sept. 30. It includes about $45 billion annually for the nation’s more than 1 billion miles of federal aid highways, as well as $12.3 billion annually for transit. That bill is primarily funded by the Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for through gas taxes.

But the plan Biden announced Wednesday makes no mention of the gas tax, with Biden instead pushing changes to the tax code to pay for the $2 trillion package and characterizing the proposal as a one-time capital investment.

That package includes $115 billion for bridges, highways, roads and streets, with an additional $85 billion for transit over eight years. Highways received an additional $10 billion in coronavirus relief dollars last year, while transit agencies, which saw ridership vanish in the days after the pandemic, received nearly $70 billion cumulatively so far in 2020 and 2021.

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In all, Biden estimates $621 billion of the bill would be for transportation infrastructure. That figure also includes $80 billion for Amtrak, $174 billion to boost the fledgling market for electric vehicles, $25 billion for airports and $17 billion for ports. Biden also calls for a $50 billion investment in “resilient infrastructure” that can withstand extreme weather events.

While the administration’s proposal aims to address climate change throughout the transportation portion, it also includes policies aimed at restoring communities that were divided by federal highways and other infrastructure.

It proposes $20 billion for a new program aimed at reconnecting neighborhoods cut off by infrastructure, not unlike a $19 million Obama-era federal grant that went toward capping Interstate-579 in Pittsburgh to reconnect the city’s Hill District to downtown.

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Such programs have received particular emphasis in the Biden administration, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg repeatedly emphasizing the need for equity, singling out the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans or Interstate-81 in Syracuse as examples of communities divided by highways.

In all, Biden hopes to modernize 20,000 miles of highways, roads and streets, fix the 10 most economically significant bridges that need reconstruction and repair 10,000 smaller bridges.

Transit, Amtrak

In a blog post reacting to the proposal, Transportation for America, an advocacy group that argues for multimodal transportation, applauded the fact that Biden included more money for transit and Amtrak combined than he did for highways, but cautioned that the $115 billion for roads, bridges and highways, should be spent smartly, warning that any fix aimed at reducing congestion would be “a fool’s errand.”

"If 'fix it better' means widening highways at the same time we repair them, the Biden plan will only induce more people to drive — making congestion even worse than what it was before, and putting our carbon emissions on an irreversible upwards trajectory,” the post read.

Democrats praised the plan, with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., calling it “visionary.”

“The plan the president laid out today makes the kind of investments that I believe we should be making to move our infrastructure out of the 1950s and into the modern era,” he said.

Republicans were quick to signal their distaste for the bill, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., saying he’s prepared to vote against it even if there’s money for the Brent Spence Bridge, an aging bridge crossing between Cincinnati and Kentucky, which was shut down because of an accident last year and which will see portions shut down between March and November for maintenance. President Barack Obama highlighted the bridge as an example of crumbling infrastructure in 2011.

"This is not going to be an infrastructure package. It's like a Trojan horse,” McConnell said Wednesday. “It's called infrastructure but inside the Trojan horse is going to be more borrowed money and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy."

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the top Republican on DeFazio's committee, complained that the plan strays too far from traditional notions about infrastructure.

"Only 25 percent of this package is dedicated to our roads, bridges, transit, rail, airports, ports and other traditional transportation infrastructure that the Committee is charged with overseeing," he said in a statement. "That does not reflect a targeted approach at all. "