Buttigieg pitches infrastructure needs to divided Congress

·5 min read

WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is warning that the country's infrastructure needs exceed $1 trillion and that other countries, namely China, are pulling ahead of the U.S. with their public works investments, a scenario he describes as “a threat to our collective future."

Buttigieg appeared before a House panel Thursday, part of an opening gambit to sell Congress on President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan. Congress just passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but Buttigieg told lawmakers that a broader economic recovery will require a national commitment to fix and transform America’s infrastructure.

He called the coming months “the best chance in any of our lifetimes to make a generational investment in infrastructure."

“Across the country, we face a trillion-dollar backlog of needed repairs and improvements, with hundreds of billions of dollars in good projects already in the pipeline,” he said.

Buttigieg also emphasized new investments to curb climate change.

“Every dollar we spend rebuilding from a climate-driven disaster is a dollar we could have spent building a more competitive, modern and resilient transportation system that produces significantly lower emissions,” Buttigieg said. “We all live with the damage that has been caused by a history of disinvestment and the resulting unmet needs that are only growing by the day.”

Buttigieg was addressing the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as Biden meets with economic advisers this week on an emerging $3 trillion package of investments on infrastructure and domestic needs. In recent weeks, Buttigieg has met with over two dozen groups and over three dozen members of Congress, according to agency records, to discuss the effort he casts as a “generational” opportunity.

But that sales pitch is facing skepticism from Republicans wary of another pricey package so soon after the multitrillion-dollar COVID-19 response. For Biden, it's yet another test of his campaign promise to reach across the political aisle to address national problems, with some Democrats favouring a go-it-alone approach that could cut Republicans out of the process.

The proposal, which remains preliminary, would break legislation on the p riorities into different pieces, including an infrastructure component to boost roads, bridges, rail lines, electrical vehicle charging stations and the cellular network, among other items, in a bid to attract Republican support. The goal would be to facilitate the shift to cleaner energy.

A second component would include investments in workers with free community college, universal pre-kindergarten and paid family leave, according to a person familiar with the options who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Still, Republicans in the closely divided Congress are already balking at the size and scope of the proposal as well as Biden’s focus on the environment. Some Democrats have privately told the administration that they will likely have to bypass Republicans and use their narrow party majorities in the House and Senate to pass infrastructure plans with budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority.

Biden is expected to provide details on his economic proposals in a speech next week.

“A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill — not the Green New Deal,” said Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on the House panel, drawing lines on what House Republicans can accept. “This needs to be about roads and bridges. ... The more massive any bill becomes, the more bipartisanship suffers.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the House transportation panel, said lawmakers should be asking what consequences the country will suffer “for every day of delay."

“Infrastructure is integral to the functioning of our economy and investing heavily in it at this moment in time is key to our nation’s recovery," DeFazio told the hearing.

Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 who was the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been echoing Biden’s call to pass a bill with bipartisan support, stressing both economic and racial justice.

He said nearly 40,000 Americans die on unsafe or inadequate roads annually, while millions of others don’t have access to affordable transportation. The current pandemic has stressed the transportation sector even more, he says, and “without action, it will only get worse.”

“We see other countries pulling ahead of us, with consequences for strategic and economic competition,” Buttigieg said. “By some measures, China spends more on infrastructure every year than the U.S. and Europe combined. The infrastructure status quo is a threat to our collective future.”

“Now is the time to finally address major inequities — including those caused by highways that were built through Black and Brown communities, decades of disinvestment that left small towns and rural main streets stranded, and the disproportionate pollution burden from trucks, ports, and other facilities," he added.

Last year, the House passed a $1.5 trillion package of public works improvements, but the Senate did not take it up after Republicans criticized it as embracing a “Green New Deal.” A Senate panel approved a far narrower measure, but it failed to advance.

Buttigieg said he looks forward to more discussion in the weeks and months ahead over the size and scope of the package. Both DeFazio and Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, have set goals of passing bills out of their committee in May.

Work on this year’s infrastructure bill and other green efforts has already begun in full force with committee hearings, closed-door meetings and legislative initiatives.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators including Carper and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the Senate health and education committee, introduced legislation aimed at spurring private investment in clean vehicle infrastructure, such as electric charging stations and hydrogen refuelling stations for fuel cell vehicles, by expanding business tax credits. The measure seeks to supplement upcoming infrastructure legislation that is expected to include federal money to help fulfil Biden’s pledge to build half a million electric charging stations over the next decade, part of a U.S. effort to achieve net-zero emission by 2050.

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Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.

Kevin Freking And Hope Yen, The Associated Press