Environmental Stories 'Down The Road' in 2020 From Highway Bill

November 13, 2019

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A transportation bill moving through Congress contains a quarter trillion dollars worth of infrastructure funding and could be an instrument of progressive climate and environmental policy, if it can make it through a political thicket. Above, highway construction in Arizon in July, 2019. Photo: © Arizona Department of Transportation, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Environmental Stories 'Down The Road' in 2020 From Highway Bill

By Joseph A. Davis

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

One thing you can count on in 2020 is that Congress will try to pass a highway, er, transportation bill. It will be a really big deal — even if major news media will neglect it.

Why is it set to be a big deal? Well, for one thing, it could contain a quarter trillion dollars worth of infrastructure funding (that’s right, the infrastructure that has become the butt of Congressional deadlock jokes). 

For another thing, it could be passed by bipartisan near-consensus at a time when bitter division is paralyzing Congress.

Most importantly, for some people, is that it could be an instrument of progressive climate and environmental policy that actually gets signed by the president. Man bites dog.


Must-pass pork-barrel bill

While election year often means little hope of getting controversial bills through Congress, it works the other way for bills that yield political benefits for almost all members.


Done right, it becomes a must-pass 

bill in an election year. The big unknown — 

and potential pothole on a smooth track 

to passage — could be impeachment.


The highway bill means senators and Congressfolk get to cut ribbons and take credit for something their constituents need. It is classic, something-for-everyone, pork-barrel legislation, even if it is “environmental.” Done right, it becomes a must-pass bill in an election year.

The big unknown — and potential pothole on a smooth track to passage — could be impeachment. If impeachment ties up big amounts of time in either chamber, it could hinder the completion of the highway bill. Right now, this is a known unknown.

One thing about “must-pass” bills is that they attract amendments containing controversial legislative measures that could not pass on their own. 

In other words, they easily become hostage to “riders” and “poison pills” that hold up their passage. Only skillful management by committee leaders can navigate (or negotiate) these perils.


What now for Senate measure?

One sign of good prospects for a surface transportation bill is that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved its own version (S. 2302) (subscription required) on July 30, 2019. Even more remarkable was that the committee approved it by a unanimous roll call vote of 21-0.

Most of the spending in the highway bill is funded by the federal gasoline tax. A key congressional figure says a hike in the gas tax is off the table. Above, a car filling up in Virginia in August, 2019. Photo: Virginia Department of Transportation, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

The Senate bill authorized some $287 billion over five years. That’s a whopping 27 percent increase over spending levels in the last bill, passed in 2015. [Here’s a summary of the current Senate bill. And here’s the full text of the bill, as amended by committee.]

What happens now that the Senate bill is out of committee may be the harder part. It is up to the Senate Finance Committee to figure out how to pay for it. That panel, chaired by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.), has so far shown little appetite for wrestling with it.

In October, a collection of 38 groups (subscription required) with a stake in the bill wrote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urging him to schedule floor action on the Highway Bill this year. Those groups include the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Iron and Steel Institute

Their idea seems to be that if McConnell schedules floor action, it might set a deadline and force the Finance Committee (and a couple of others that need to sign off) to deal with it.  


Who pays the bill? 

How to pay for it is another matter altogether. 

Most of the spending in the highway bill is funded by the federal gasoline tax. As a tax, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee, which also must act on the bill before it goes to the floor. 

Grassley has said (subscription required) a hike in the gas tax is off the table. No Finance Committee markup of the bill has yet been scheduled.


The federal gas tax … has not been indexed 

for inflation, which would have increased 

it by 73 percent over the ensuing 25 years.


The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. The excise tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. It has not been indexed for inflation, which would have increased it by 73 percent over the ensuing 25 years. 

The money goes into the earmarked Highway Trust Fund. The fund essentially contains two accounts. The money in the highways account, by far the bigger of the two, goes to things like roads and bridges. The money in the public transit account goes to local programs for things like buses, subways and streetcars. 

Still, the lion’s share (about three-fourths) of transportation spending comes from local and state governments (the latter have their own gas taxes as well).

The money in the Highway Trust Fund is distributed among the states according to a complex formula aimed at depoliticizing the allocation. While the formula used to be based on things like population and mileage, it has today come to be dominated by how much of the gas tax is actually collected in each state.

The Highway Trust Fund in recent years has been running out of money, for several reasons. It’s not just inflation. As cars get better mileage, they burn less taxable fuel per mile. The overall price of fuel also affects how much people drive. 

Mainly though, the law does not limit outlay commitments to the amounts actually collected into the fund. To make up the shortfall, Congress has increasingly turned in recent years to taking money from the general fund of the Treasury, probably unsustainable politically or economically.

That means the key looming obstacle any Highway Bill must hurdle on the way to enactment turns out to be how to pay for it. 

So the euphoric and self-congratulatory rush of bipartisan bonhomie that Senate Environment members expressed as they raised spending by 27 percent could turn out to be premature.


Taxes ... and their alternatives

Raising a “tax” in an election year is politically difficult. Congressional Republicans and the Trump White House (subscription required) right now seem pretty clearly opposed (subscription required) to any increase, as do many conservative groups (subscription required).  


The Senate bill increases annual funds for biking and walking from $850 million per year to $1.2 billion per year, drawing support from advocacy groups. Above, bikers on a New York City street in the summer of 2018. Photo: New York City Department of Transportation, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

There are alternatives, but they have problems, too. Taxing miles traveled instead of gallons burned would bring electric vehicles into a fairer cost-sharing position, but would gore other oxen. Nobody wants the feds tracking the miles they drive. And fees on electric vehicles (subscription required) could seem climate-unfriendly

Another option is more toll-roads and private financing. Or repealing the 2017 GOP tax cut. None of this seems politically feasible in the 2020 election year. 

Finally, there is hypocrisy. Some transportation industry groups have backed a gas tax hike publicly and Trump has reportedly backed one privately. If Congress does a short-term extension before the election, and the tax gets raised after the election, it could hurt less.

The problem is that the Highway Trust Fund law, and the authority to spend under it, expires Sept. 30, 2020. This could serve as a practical deadline for finishing the Highway Bill.


Environmental elements included

If the question of who pays for it can be settled, the bill could face green lights. McConnell has signaled willingness to bring it to the floor, and President Trump has tweeted his apparent willingness to sign it.

Here are some of the environmental policies raised by the measure: 

  • Public transit: Environmental advocates often favor public transit (buses, subways, etc.) because it tends to emit less pollution and be more energy-efficient. Since 1964, the federal government has helped fund local public transit programs, mainly through the Highway Trust Fund. In recent years, that has amounted to about $13.5 billion a year. 
  • Climate change: Sponsors brag that the Senate bill contains a first-ever climate “title,” although it’s a grab bag of quite various programs. Sponsors claim that the climate title devotes a total of $10 billion to climate. That includes grants for building infrastructure for electric vehicle charging or alternative-fuel vehicle fueling. Another grant program would reduce emissions from idling trucks at port facilities. Yet another sizeable grant program would fund state efforts to reduce on-road carbon emissions, and another would give grants to states to reduce traffic congestion (idling vehicles emit a lot of carbon). Another big one would fund competitive grants to states for promoting resiliency of transportation infrastructure to climate (e.g., roads flooded by sea level rise).
  • Bicycle and walking infrastructure: Biking and walking are low-to-no-emission activities, and environmentalists seek to up their share of the total transportation pie. The League of American Bicyclists is happy with the Senate bill, which it says increases funds for bike infrastructure, bike safety, etc. The League says the Senate bill would increase annual funds for biking and walking from $850 million per year to $1.2 billion per year. The group People for Bikes also likes the bill.
  • Other environment-related provisions: The Senate bill mandates and funds urgent repairs and improvements on National Forest System roads, trails and bridges. A wildlife-crossing provision funds a $250 million pilot program for projects designed to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity. Another raises the cap on funding of projects on federal lands, mandating the use of native plants. An important one would codify the Trump effort to shorten and limit environmental reviews of transportation infrastructure projects. Another mandates an interagency working group to promote conversion of the federal fleet to hybrid, plug-in and alt-fueled vehicles. Another mandates a study on permeable pavements.   


Prospects unclear for House version

Although a bill has not yet appeared on the House side, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) says he, and the committee, are working on one. 

Historically, these bills have taken shape largely behind closed doors (where political bargaining happens) and are then unveiled at the time of markup as “done deals.”


[The House] is interested in bringing

 the Eisenhower-era highway program forward 

into the modern era ... with autonomous vehicles, 

fuel efficiency and innovative funding mechanisms.


DeFazio has signaled, even more than the Senate committee leaders, that he is interested in bringing the Eisenhower-era highway program forward into the modern era, technologically and otherwise. He sees a bill that deals with autonomous vehicles, fuel efficiency and innovative funding mechanisms.  

DeFazio recently told Transport Topics that he probably won’t uncork a finished Highway Bill until early 2020. And that will still leave the unfinished business of getting a pay-for from the House Ways and Means Committee, getting it passed by the full House and reconciling it in conference with a Senate bill.

Ultimately, the Highway Bill may be a must-pass bill that may not pass. It depends on a deal that has not yet been made. It could even be seen as a test of the ability of a divided Congress and a mercurial White House to accomplish the daily and yearly business of government. 

Hanging over the whole thing is the lesson of the collapse in May 2019 of even more ambitious “infrastructure” negotiations, the Trump White House’s unpredictability and the pain of paying for grandiose political ambitions.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 41. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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