Infrastructure lament: ‘Deal is more important than the outcome’

The deal was made and the questions were quickly raised

One critic called the bill “car-focused,” saying any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing access to transit would be offset by the availability of new highways to drive on.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
One critic called the bill “car-focused,” saying any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing access to transit would be offset by the availability of new highways to drive on.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 30, 2021 at 6:00am

The bipartisan Senate negotiators had no sooner convened a giddy, celebratory news conference Wednesday night to celebrate striking a deal on a $944 billion infrastructure agreement, when the criticism began rolling in.

The bill, critics said, didn’t invest enough in safety. It spent too much on highways and not enough on transit. And it fell short of the transformative policy to address climate change that the moment demands.

The legislation, said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a pro-transit organization, “is the result of folks that think the deal is more important than the outcome.”

She criticized the agreement as “car-focused,” saying while the agreement added funding to transit, it added more to the highway program, which meant any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing access to transit would be immediately offset by the availability of new highways to drive on. 

“Sadly, we won’t be able to negotiate with the climate gods by saying ‘yes, carbon emissions went up, but look at some of the nice transit projects we built,” she said.

Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said Biden had initially pitched his American Jobs Plan, which he unveiled in March, as aimed at achieving social equity and reducing carbon emissions. 

The bipartisan plan unveiled Wednesday, he said, is “not going to achieve those outcomes.”

Biden’s initial plans, for example, called for $20 billion for a new program to help undo a federal legacy of building highways and other infrastructure through Black and Brown neighborhoods. The bipartisan framework included $1 billion for that program.

And while it increases funding for transit, it also includes money to expand highways “with virtually no limitations on spending as far as I could tell,” Freemark said.

But he called the dramatic increase in rail — $66 billion over five years —  a transformational change.

He said it’s possible the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation plan Democrats plan to advance could help meet those goals.”We just don’t know,” he said.

The agreement also drew praise: Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic-leaning think tank that promotes itself as pragmatic, said the bill is “not perfect,” but praised what he called “a long overdue outbreak of governing competence in Washington.”

'Dismayed'

As the agreement became known, groups as disparate as Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the American Chemistry Council were sending out statements lamenting the details.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said the framework “fails to include provisions needed to significantly address the persistent physical, emotional and economic toll of motor vehicle crashes occurring every year, and even worsening."

 American Chemistry Council President and CEO Chris Jahn, meanwhile, said he was “dismayed” to see that one of the pay-fors would be to reinstate Superfund taxes, which he said “will increase the cost of a variety of consumer goods, including many of the very materials needed for infrastructure development and climate improvement.”

He said affected sectors would include electric-vehicle infrastructure, renewable energy solutions, advanced coatings, energy efficiency materials, and water delivery and purification.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, pointed to the lack of climate change provisions. 

“By every metric, the bipartisan infrastructure deal falls short of President Biden’s mandate to build a thriving clean energy economy and fails to meet his own climate commitments to the international community,” said  Evergreen Action Executive Director Jamal Raad, who urged Democrats to include more aggressive climate change provisions in their upcoming reconciliation package.

LeeAnn Hall, campaign director of the National Campaign for Transit Justice, called the funding for public transit “wholly insufficient.”

Perhaps no one is more disappointed than House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., who still was wondering aloud what was in the deal a day after the Senate approved a cloture motion on proceeding to the legislative vehicle (HR 3684) for the measure. 

That bill is DeFazio’s five-year, $767 billion surface transportation and waste and drinking water bill that passed the House July 1, but it and he were largely left out of the Senate negotiations. On Thursday, he wondered what was in the bill and hoped the Senate would approve amendments to include some of the policies he pushed for. 

“There's a lot of policies that got left out that are critical,” he said Thursday morning, then corrected himself. “I don't know if they're left out, I assume they're left out. We haven't seen any text.”

He said he was hoping that if the bipartisan agreement was not amended, the funding shortfalls in the bill could be included in the reconciliation bill to be passed later. 

“Hope springs eternal,” he said. “Lucy and the football or whatever.”