A House Democratic infrastructure plan released on Jan. 29, 2020, calls for a total of $489 bill...

A House Democratic infrastructure plan released on Jan. 29, 2020, calls for a total of $489 bill for highways, rail and transit, with traditional road projects receiving 67 percent of the total investment money.

Photo: U.S. Department of Transportation

House Democratic leaders unveiled the outlines for a $760 billion, five-year infrastructure package on Wednesday — a proposal that includes an ambitious climate agenda but not, so far, many specifics about how to find the money.

According to reporting by Politico and other news outlets, the House Democrats' plan rivals the $1.5 trillion, 10-year infrastructure plan that President Donald Trump advanced two years ago. But Trump's would have relied mainly on state, local and private dollars — a controversial element even among many Republicans — and focused heavily on reducing the amount of time it takes to approve permits for projects.

The framework of the Democratic plan includes existing highway, transit and water legislation, of the type that Congress passes every few years, as well as new efforts to boost the availability of broadband internet and help communities counter the effects of climate change. Housing and school construction will also be a "special focus," House Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) told reporters.

The plan, however, does not outline details for paying for the new infrastructure projects – a point the speaker acknowledged. "This is a big step, and a major expense," she said. "We have to find the funding for it."

Pelosi said she did not yet have a timetable for bringing the plan to the House floor as a bill for a vote, however, "We'll go to the floor when we're ready," she said. “We're not talking about next week.”

Infrastructure funding has proven difficult to obtain despite substandard roads and bridges in many parts of the country since many politicians have been loath to use the simplest fund-raising mechanism – an increase in fuel taxes at the pump.

Fuel taxes have not been raised since 1993, and House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) told reporters that the status quo on infrastructure — simply continuing the seven-decade-long tradition of viewing infrastructure mainly as the construction of highways, paid for with an eroding tax on gasoline — is not a viable option.

"We have a tremendous opportunity here to do a transformative 21st century infrastructure package," DeFazio said. "We've been living off the legacy of Dwight David Eisenhower, with small tweaks, for 75 years. It's falling apart. It needs to be rebuilt."

A Green Infrastructure Deal

In his comments, DeFazio alluded to one large part of the House Democrats’ plan that is almost certain ignite a political debate with Republican lawmakers – tying infrastructure improvements in with the fight against climate change.

Rebuilding our infrastructure, DeFazio told reporters, should include construction techniques that take climate change into account, such as the use of concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide, as well as new transit and rail systems, "enhanced" inland waterways, efforts to ease overcrowding in airports and assistance to communities on their sewage systems.

According to DeFazio, the Democrat plan's climate elements will include making federal buildings carbon-neutral and transitioning to renewable fuels for aviation, as well as a focus on transit and rail as a greener option than automobiles and airplanes

He said Tuesday that Republicans "shouldn't have any objection to new, more climate-friendly materials that are actually going to save the taxpayers money."

The panel's top Republican, Rep. Sam Graves, (R-MO), signaled early Republican opposition to the Democratic plan, in a statement noting that "any (infrastructure) serious effort ... must incorporate Republican principles as well." While Graves added that he did not agree with all of the principles in the Democratic plan, he expects to play a constructive role in the development of infrastructure in the coming year.

In a press statement, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue noted that, “Our nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating and only getting worse. By 2025, our crumbling infrastructure will cost American businesses $7 trillion. Today’s announcement from Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats is an important step forward on the path to rebuilding America’s infrastructure. We urge Republicans and Democrats to come together this year to enact legislation to rebuild our core infrastructure platforms, including roads, bridges, and transit."

The Chamber has previously outlined a four-point plan for infrastructure modernization and investment and we continue to urge Congress and the administration to take the following recommendations into account when building an infrastructure package:

•            Increasing the federal fuel user fee by 25 cents

•            Implementing a multi-faceted approach for leveraging more public and private resources

•            Streamlining the permitting process at the federal, state, and local level

•            Expanding the American workforce through work-based learning and immigration reform

In contrast, the House Democratic plan calls for a total of $489 bill for highways, rail and transit, with traditional road projects receiving just 67 percent of the overall investment — a significantly smaller share than the 76 percent that highways received in the last Obama-era surface transportation bill, Politico noted. It also includes $80 billion over five years to pay for high-speed broadband in "underserved" communities, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) said.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear issued a statement commending Speaker Pelosi and House Leaders for their commitment to revitalizing American infrastructure. "Each additional day that we short our nation’s roads and bridges of needed funds, more lives are at put at risk, more hours of the day are lost sitting in traffic and more damage is done to the environment," he said. “We look forward to working with Congress and the administration on a robust infrastructure package that restores our roads and bridges with a cost-effective, fiscally conservative and realistic funding solution in the near-term.”

ATA has proposed the Build America Fund, which would be supported with a federal fuel-usage fee built into the price of transportation fuels—diesel and gasoline—collected at the wholesale terminal rack, phased in at a nickel per year over four years. The fee would be indexed to both inflation and improvements in fuel efficiency, with a 5% annual cap. ATA estimates the Build America Fund would generate $340 billion in new revenue over the first ten years, without adding a dime to the federal deficit or requiring any new administrative bureaucracy. 

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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