Bipartisan Senate surface transportation draft proposes $304B for highways

By | May 22, 2021

A Senate committee released a bipartisan draft Saturday of a $303.5 billion highway, road and bridge bill — the type of traditional transportation package that Congress is likely to pass in some form in the coming year, despite Republicans’ rejection of President Joe Biden’s latest big infrastructure proposal.

The bill that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unveiled would replace an existing surface transportation law that is due to expire in September, making it as close to must-pass as legislation ever gets on Capitol Hill. It is, by necessity, far more limited in scope than Biden’s plan, which would total nearly $2 trillion and include spending on needs such as waterways, aviation, broadband, clean water, the power grid, health care and the environment.

Still, the committee’s proposal could become a cornerstone of the Senate’s eventual response to Biden’s larger American Jobs Plan — and achieving a bipartisan agreement on even this piece is a milestone.

“Safe and reliable infrastructure is something every American can get behind,” West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the committee’s top Republican, said in a statement from the panel Saturday.

In contrast, she and other Republicans had quickly rejected the White House’s latest offer on the bigger infrastructure plan Friday. The White House said Biden had agreed to cut his $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal down to $1.7 billion, in part by shifting spending to other bills.

Committee Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) released the Saturday’s highway draft along with Capito, Transportation Subcommittee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Transportation Subcommittee ranking member Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). The committee said it will mark up the bill on Wednesday.

The committee bill would offer 34 percent more money compared with current spending on highways and related needs. It also proposes to spend $500 million a year over five years on alternative fueling and charging infrastructure — far less than Biden’s proposals for electric vehicle charging, but also far more than Senate Republicans had supported in their latest infrastructure counteroffer.

The roads and bridges provision of Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposes to spend $115 billion over existing spending over eight years, while the Senate bill is $77 billion larger than the baseline over five years. That makes the Senate proposal the bigger one, to the tune of $1 billion per year.

The EPW committee’s jurisdiction only extends to highways, so other committees would need to write provisions concerning transportation needs like transit, rail and safety before any bill goes to the Senate floor. The Finance Committee will have to figure out how to pay for it.

One big obstacle: The Highway Trust Fund has been spending more than it brings in for more than a decade, and Democrats and Republicans have long been paralyzed by disagreements over how to make up the rest, making bipartisan passage of even this modest piece of the overall infrastructure package a heavy lift.