As negotiations continue, Congress clears temporary extension of federal transportation programs

U.S. House Democrats add more mass transit, high-speed rail in second shot at infrastructure bill

Image: Federal Transit Administration

The U.S. House transportation panel early Wednesday passed along party lines the panel’s $60 billion slice of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget plan, adding nearly $20 billion for a new transit program and high-speed rail development in the states.

Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon had considered these and other items underfunded in the Senate-led bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed there last month.

DeFazio opened the marathon Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting Tuesday morning by blasting the two-track plan to pass a $1.2 trillion bill to improve physical infrastructure alongside the broader $3.5 trillion package.

President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have said the larger plan is meant to address “human infrastructure” like health care and education.

That approach did not adequately address crucial priorities, especially related to climate change, DeFazio said, as the $1.2 trillion bill that was written without House input.

The larger bill, which Democrats are trying to pass without any Republican support through a legislative process known as budget reconciliation, affords the opportunity to address issues not covered in the Senate bill.

The panel’s allotment is just under $60 billion, though it could end up with less if the Senate reduces the $3.5 trillion topline.

“Unfortunately, we have been told that the bipartisan infrastructure plan is sacrosanct, and it just has to be voted on as-is in the House of Representatives,” DeFazio said.

“And we are going to be marking up a bill to try and fix some of the issues with the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan, which we will not be allowed otherwise to deal with. This was a torturous negotiation, to put it mildly.”

Among those fixes in the bill the panel approved early Wednesday morning 37-29 was an additional $9.9 billion for transit grants, which would increase access for residents of low-income housing.

To avoid duplication with the Senate bill—a condition with which the White House agreed to win Republican support—the transit funding would not go toward existing Federal Transit Administration formula or grant programs. It would be jointly administered by the FTA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

DeFazio framed the transit program as a climate issue because mass transit provides a greener alternative to single-occupancy vehicles.

The bill would also provide $10 billion for grants to develop high-speed rail routes, which could provide a lower-emission alternative to plane travel.

Another climate item would create a $4 billion incentive program to give extra federal funding to states that achieve greenhouse gas reductions. That is a weaker version of a proposed mandate that was part of a DeFazio-written surface transportation authorization bill the House passed earlier this year.

The provision was not included in the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill, DeFazio said, because the Senate-passed bill “was written by climate-denying Republicans and a couple of Democratic collaborators.”

Five Republicans and five Democrats led months-long negotiations on the Senate bill, and all 50 Senate Democrats voted for it last month.

The bill also includes $350 million for a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker in the Great Lakes. The ship, meant to keep shipping lanes clear in winter, was sought by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, (D-Ohio).

Republican opposition

Committee Republicans still accused Democrats of violating the agreement to reopen pieces of the bipartisan infrastructure bill by including the greenhouse gas incentives program, and transit and high-speed rail funding. Read more

How lawmakers undermined Durham’s plan to get people out of their cars

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The next time you’re stuck in traffic on I-40 between Raleigh and Durham, you can blame, at least in part, the state legislature. (If you’re driving alone in a car, you also have to blame yourself.)

Even 16 years ago, Durham County government could read the tea leaves that forecast a traffic daymare on the main drag between the two major cities. So the county commissioners adopted a Commute Trip Reduction Ordinance, in hopes of reducing car traffic and its attendant pollution on I-40, NC 54 and US 15-501.

With the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, the ordinance required major employers, defined as those with 100 or more workers, to promote alternatives to solo driving, such as carpooling, mass transit, cycling and telecommuting. Companies paid an annual $200 fee for GoTriangle to run the program and they had to complete a yearly report — nothing too onerous. Compliance was about as tough as studying for an open-book test.

Sure, employers could have been fined up to $1,000 for failing to comply with the ordinance, but according to Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, Durham County never penalized anyone.

By 2010, the ordinance had been declared a major success. The program had enrolled 60 employers, such as Duke University and Self-Help Credit Union. Together, all of the companies represented 73,000 employees. Durham County had reduced the number of solo drivers to 77 percent in 2010 from 87 percent in 2005. The program had achieved its goals, so Durham Commissioners re-upped it for another 10 years.

And then, the legislature essentially stole the horsepower from Durham’s ordinance. In 2013, the conservative majority passed an expansive House Bill 74, ostensibly to remove “unnecessary regulations.” In fact, the measure hamstrung local governments from passing certain laws. One of them singled out Durham: Section 10.1 (b) prohibited local governments from requiring employers to be responsible for “the mitigation of the impact” of their employees’ commute.

The program could be voluntary, which in horsepower terms, is like a Fiat racing a Ferrari. But local governments couldn’t threaten any company with a fine, however anemic, or any “negative consequences.” Like air pollution. And high blood pressure. And time wasted behind the wheel.

In 2015, the now-voluntary survey participation decreased from 82 employers to 16, although GoTriangle says nearly the same number of employees participated as in prior years, because of company mergers and other economic factors.

But 51,400 workers still commute from Wake County to Durham County each day. About 20,000 travel from Durham to Wake. Even as regional ridership has increased by more than 250 percent since 1996, this summer Triangle Transit had to adjust its Durham to Raleigh timetables to leave more time for interstate traffic.

While we’re on the topic of transit, tomorrow the NC Justice Center hosts a Crucial Conversation about the Wake County transit referendum, which would add a half-penny to the sale tax to fund public transportation.(Register here. Bonus points for walking, biking or taking the bus — not driving — to 711 Hillsborough Street.