March 26, 2021
The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I), the largest committee in Congress by membership, is chaired by Congressman Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR). DeFazio has served on the Committee since he was elected in 1986. Congressman Sam Graves (R-MO) leads the minority on the Committee as the Ranking Member.
The House T&I Committee has broad jurisdiction over a wide swath of issues, including; Transportation, including civil aviation, railroads, water transportation, most transportation safety, transportation infrastructure, transportation labor, and most railroad retirement and unemployment; Commercial space transportation; Public works for the benefit of navigation, including bridges and dams (other than international bridges and dams); Related transportation regulatory agencies (except the Transportation Security Administration); Roads and the safety thereof; and water power.
Earlier this week the Committee held a wide-ranging hearing regarding the Biden-Harris Administration’s infrastructure priorities. On Thursday, March 25, the Committee held a hearing titled “The Administration’s Priorities for Transportation Infrastructure,” featuring Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Secretary Buttigieg emphasized the long-term goals of the administration, equating the scale of their infrastructure plans with Eisenhower’s, signaling the scope of the changes the administration hopes to achieve. He repeatedly emphasized the transition to a cleaner economy but highlighted that these proposals will be developed with heavy community involvement and remain flexible so states and localities can maximize their benefits.
Some of the key issues discussed included:
- Addressing the Climate Challenge – Secretary Buttigieg noted that the transportation sector is the leading contributor to climate change in the US. He highlighted his priority of opening up as many options to commuters as possible while emphasizing reducing emissions as much as possible. He highlighted that addressing the climate challenge will protect American lives and property. Buttigieg also noted the importance of environmental permitting but recognized the timeframe for environmental permitting can be a constraint on infrastructure development and stated he would look for ways to ensure rigorous standards while making the process more efficient. He stated the government should pursue an all-of-the-above strategy with green energy, including developing hydrogen fuel cells.
- Public Transit and Railways – Secretary Buttigieg noted that it was an administration priority to protect and expand employment opportunities in the rail sector. Buttigieg stated he would analyze the implications of a national zero-emission bus proposal. He noted that rail does not have a dedicated trust fund, so infrastructure projects can face larger headwinds in this sector. He also stated the decarbonizing freight is a key priority. Buttigieg frequently emphasized the need to increase transit options for commuters. He stated that high-speed rail would extend prosperity and convenience while reducing disparities but must be done while taking community concerns into account. He signaled his openness to maglev technology.
- Centering Equity – Multiple Representatives raised concerns about the Disadvantages Business Enterprise (DBE) program. Secretary Buttigieg noted that DBEs are an essential part of an equitable contract process, harmonizing them across states is a top priority, and that he would look into net worth requirements as well as unbundling contracts to give participants in the DBE program, typically businesses from disadvantaged or marginalized communities, more equity in securing federal contracts. He highlighted that this includes a focus on rural and tribal infrastructure.
- The Future of Consumer Transportation, EVs and AVs – Secretary Buttigieg highlighted that the need to establish safety and certainty in the autonomous vehicle industry, noting that the policy framework has not kept up with the pace of technological innovation. Buttigieg highlighted the importance of establishing a robust charging network for electric vehicles (EVs), noting this would help adoption of the technology by easing range anxiety. Buttigieg noted there have been no discussions on banning combustion engines, but highlighted the industry is moving away from them as a whole. Buttigieg signaled his openness to explore a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax for EVs that would replace the gas tax but emphasized that this would not be an additional fee drivers had to pay, but a replacement, and noted that privacy concerns would be taken into account when collecting millage data. He stated that DOT is considering several avenues to further incentivize the adoption of EVs, including looking at existing tax credits. Buttigieg also noted he has collaborated with Energy Secretary Granholm on green grid improvements, especially around EVs.
- Employment – Multiple Representatives raised concerns about the workforce required to follow through on the administration’s ambitions. Secretary Buttigieg noted there is a lot of opportunity for building a diverse workforce and emphasized the importance of a robust relationship with organized labor, though he stated union membership would not be a requirement to work on infrastructure projects. He also suggested DOT could work with underrepresented groups to offer apprenticeship positions. Buttigieg highlighted that the best federal policies incentivize public-private partnerships and showed an openness to prioritizing green workforce training through DOT.
The Biden-Harris Administration has made addressing climate change a central theme to their actions to date, no more clearly evidenced by the appointment of Secretary John Kerry as the US Special Envoy on Climate. Biden placed a frequent emphasis on green infrastructure on the campaign trail, pointing to his proposed investments in infrastructure development as the answer to job displacement from the transition to a greener economy, as well as highlighting that proper infrastructure investment can be an effective lever to address inequity and inequality in American communities. The Biden-Harris Administration has also announced plans to replace the U.S. government fleet with electric vehicles – both of these ambitions will require close communication and consultation with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Some have argued that Biden appointing Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary has also been a signal about the emphasis he is placing on the agency.
While there was a running joke during much of the previous administration that every week was “infrastructure week”, due to their rhetoric supporting infrastructure investment but a lack of appetite by many to act on those proposals, there is a clear desire, especially from Democratic members of Congress, to act in line with President Biden’s vision. As Chairman DeFazio stated recently, “We know the question is not whether we need to invest, but what consequences we’ll suffer for every day of delay as the risk of failure of our aging and fragile assets increases. We know the dramatic impact that federal transportation and infrastructure investments have in creating and sustaining good family-wage jobs that can’t be outsourced. And how these investments support American manufacturing through the robust Buy America standards in the programs this Committee authorizes. And we know that in this pivotal time, it’s not just how much we invest, but how we invest these funds that will determine whether an infrastructure bill moves our nation in the right direction. It is time to reimagine how we plan and build transportation projects and put our money behind achieving a new vision.”
However, the partisan disagreements so typical to the Hill are expected to carry through for efforts on infrastructure, so if a serious package is considered, it would be unsurprising to see it passed through reconciliation, not unlike Congressional Democrats’ efforts to pass the American Rescue Plan through reconciliation. Secretary Buttigieg has stated the Biden Administration hopes to pursue a bipartisan infrastructure package, but the focus is on the outcomes rather than the process. While the administration has yet to release their own formalized vision for an infrastructure package, House Democrats in the Energy and Commerce Committee have released the LIFT America Act, an infrastructure investment package that includes an intense focus on addressing the climate crisis.