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Biden's infrastructure challenge: Finding common ground

By Jessica Wehrman, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — Within days of the 2020 presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden received a blunt reminder of the challenges ahead when a bridge that has come to symbolize the nation's outdated infrastructure caught fire.

Long before the Nov. 11 collision of two semi-trailers on the Brent Spence Bridge, which links Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, that bridge was offered by both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump as a visible reminder of the nation's badly outdated infrastructure. Both vowed to fix it; neither got it done.

Now it's up to Biden, who, like his predecessors, has listed infrastructure as a top priority in his administration.

He enters the process facing the same hurdles that Trump and Obama found ultimately insurmountable.

He has an easy enough vehicle to start with: Congress in October punted on a new highway bill, opting instead to extend the 2015 surface transportation law by a year, to Oct. 1, 2021.

If Biden wants to go big on infrastructure investment, he has a key ally in House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., who, like Biden, sees infrastructure as inherently linked to climate change.

 

That's the good news. The bad news is that though Senate control won't be settled until after the two Georgia runoff elections in January, Biden appears likely to face a Republican-majority Senate loath to give him a policy win — even on an issue on which they'd both like to see progress.

And then there's the problem that has stymied administration after administration: How to pay for a massive investment.

Congress has not raised the highway- and transit-funding gas tax, fixed at 18.3 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.3 cents per gallon for diesel and kerosene, since 1993. It's long been a political barrier, even as groups as diverse as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the American Public Transportation Association and the American Trucking Associations have called for an increase, as has DeFazio. In the meantime, the federal government has transferred at least $140 billion from its general funds to offset the resulting shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund that pays for those highway and transit projects, according to a May 2020 report by the Tax Policy Center.

But Republicans including DeFazio's counterpart on the committee, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., are resistant to such an increase, and argue that the gas tax is heading toward extinction as automobiles become more fuel-efficient. They prefer a fee based on vehicle miles traveled, but even proponents of such a measure say that technology is not yet ready for widespread deployment.

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