New House Transportation Chair: ‘We Need to Move Beyond Fossil Fuel’

Photo:  Elvert Barnes/Flickr/CC
Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr/CC

This is not your GOP’s infrastructure.

The Democrat takeover of the House has created a new political dynamic, making incoming Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio perhaps the most powerful person to shape federal transportation policy. The Oregon Democrat — who has been in Congress since 1987 — been one of the leading progressives on issues such as holding designers accountable for unsafe streets and promoting increased protection for women on public transit.

With his lofty new perch, DeFazio says he will push for an infrastructure deal that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and bolster transit against driving. Livable streets? Better design? “We’re going to do those things,” DeFazio told Streetsblog in a phone interview about what he has planned. [Editor’s note: In the following interview, editor’s notes and explanatory remarks are labeled with brackets.]

Angie Schmitt: I’ve been covering infrastructure bills for a long time. We’re really interested in what might be the outcome of a new push. 

Peter DeFazio: Everything else we’ve done [past infrastructure bills] has really been iterations of what we’ve been doing since the ’60s, so I’m looking at major new policy initiatives as we go forward.

Transportation is, depending on what you read, the first or second largest [carbon] emitter. We need to move beyond the fossil fuel transportation system. If we’re going to electrify the system, we need a breakthrough in the battery technology to do it really efficiently, to begin to build the backbone for an electrified transportation system. I think we need to do a public infrastructure [adding electric vehicle charging stations across the country] or incentivizing the states to do electrification infrastructure.

Do you think there’s a prospect for improving funding for walking, biking and transit? What are your goals around that?


I think one of the greatest things we did  was Safe Routes to School [which provides states with money to help school districts promote safe biking and walking to school].

In 1990, ’92 whenever we did the first Transportation bill, [Rep.] Joe Kennedy and I were campaigning, “A Billion for Bikes.” I’m a former bike mechanic and I’m like, “We gotta put some emphasis into alternate modes.” [Editor’s note: The most-recent transportation bill, the FAST Act, which passed in 2015, contained about $815 million for biking and walking, under the heading “Transportation Alternatives.”]

They [Republicans] tried to kill off [Safe Routes To School] altogether in the FAST Act. We changed the name, moved the money around. Obviously we lost Safe Routes to School [as a stand-alone program with guaranteed funding]. We did retain the core potential funding under alternate modes. But it became optional at the state level. And some states and doing a lot with it and some states are doing nothing with it. [Editor’s note: North Carolina recently almost killed its program, complaining that it was no longer funded.]

Good old days? Late Rep. Jim Oberstar (right) and DeFazio shared a ride in a pedi-cab. Photo: Willamette River Bridge Project
Good old days? Late Rep. Jim Oberstar (right) and DeFazio once shared a ride in a pedi-cab. Photo: Willamette River Bridge Project

So I want to go back to at least to where we were previously at least with SAFETEA-LU [the 2005 Transportation bill], especially with Safe Routes to Schools and alternate modes [where biking and walking were funded at higher levels and the money couldn’t be transferred to highway spending].

They [Republicans] hate the word “livability” or “complete streets” or “appropriate design.” But we’re going to do all those things. They don’t like the names, they can come up with different names. But we’re going do those things. I think there are enough Republicans who will go along with those things that we’ll be able to get it done.

What about the 80 percent-20-percent split for highways and transit funding with the Highway Trust Fund, which is about $50 billion a year, first passed under Reagan? Do you imagine there will be any changes to that?  

I do not want to diminish the transit split. We had a knock-down-drag-out [fight] over transit during SAFETEA-LU. We won, and I don’t intend to revisit and diminish that split.

This administration proposed two things: they proposed massive shift in responsibility to local or state jurisdictions. They also proposed funding their so-called increase with a massive cut in transit and rail and other modes.

No, we’re not going there.

I know that you’re very motivated to do an infrastructure bill. Are there are certain things that are just not negotiable right from the start?

If it’s a pretend plan like the one from the president last year, like something that doesn’t have new real federal investment, that’s a nonstarter. There has to be some real investment. I have delivered that message many times at the White House and there is some recognition that they understand that.

Since 1993, we haven’t raised the gas tax.

Transit at now I think up to a $106 billion price tag to bring it to a state of good repair. Why is that important? Well, we kill people because of disrepair. Beyond that, more and more people abandoned transit as it becomes less and less reliable. If we could bring existing transit up to a state of good repair, you have a dependable schedule, you know that the bus is going to be there, you know that Metro’s gonna be there, you’re not going to get stuck out in the ‘burbs and have to take a bus. If people can get to work on time, more and more people will gravitate toward transit.

That’s $106 billion but then we also need to offer people new transit options and that’s going to cost more on top of the $106 billion. [Editor’s note: In the last few years, lawmakers have allocated about $50 billion annually for surface transportation, including highways and transit.]

Do you think there’s an opportunity to get more money for walking and biking? 

We lost a couple of billion dollars out of alternative modes in the FAST Act, as I recall. And they also made those modes optional to the states [meaning states could transfer half the money to other things].

I would go back to having that be a separate category. If you want that money, that’s where you spend that money, not have it diverted to highway or something else.

It depends upon how much money [Ways and Means Committee Chairman] Rick Neal can get me.

If he can get me all the money I need to bring the existing system up to a state of good repair, begin to build new transit options for people, begin to build out a backbone for electric vehicles and get me more money for alternate modes, I’ll do it. But ultimately it’s going to be up to him to come up with the funding.

I’ve proposed indexing the gas tax [against inflation] and bonding [against future revenues], but our committee can’t do it. It’s not our jurisdiction.

Smart Growth America just had this big report showing how much pedestrian fatalities have increased. Fatality rates for drivers and passengers have leveled off. But they’ve increased tremendously for pedestrians. Do you think an infrastructure bill would address that?

We certainly need to hold a hearing and investigate what the causes are. [Editor’s note: The causes are drivers making longer trips in increasingly larger vehicles.] I don’t know. … I would certainly want to make available through the Alternative Modes program money for enhancing pedestrian safety. I am concerned about the proliferation of these scooters. I haven’t seen any statistics on them, but people on those are very vulnerable. Especially since they mostly aren’t wearing helmets.

There are new and growing areas were going to have to deal with let alone the existing pedestrians and cyclists.

34 thoughts on New House Transportation Chair: ‘We Need to Move Beyond Fossil Fuel’

  1. The ceasing of federal subsidies for car based transportation would probably be enough.

    But unfortunately the Green New Deal is likely just going to be a Musk wealth transfer.

  2. “I am concerned about the proliferation of these scooters. I haven’t seen any statistics on them, but people on those are very vulnerable. Especially since they mostly aren’t wearing helmets.”

    No, especially since they aren’t encased in several tons of steel.

  3. This is where the climate change goals don’t coincide with safe streets. You can sort of make a climate change / sustainability push with focusing on converting from fossil fuels to electric vehicles (well, maybe.) But getting hit by a motorist driving an electric car going 40 mph is still probably going to kill you. Streetsblog is certainly sensitive to the latter issue, but I don’t get from this interview that DeFazio is.

    This promise of electric car infrastructure as this sort of panacea just screams wanting to “have your cake and eat it too.” No hard choices to be made. No changes to zoning. No slowing the cars. We’ll just tax corporations and still be able to drive our Tesla 15 miles to the nearest gym.

  4. Yep, as much as I want to like DeFazio, he’s just another example of you can’t deify any politician for any reason.

  5. I mostly agree but I’m still excited about electric vehicles. No matter how you spin it, there are going to be some types of motor vehicles which we can’t do without. That’s why we need an electric vehicle infrastructure in place sooner rather than later. The movement to reduce reliance on personal automobiles can still continue, but I wouldn’t consider doing so a necessary prerequisite to installing electric vehicle infrastructure.

    And sure, people absolutely want painless solutions but this doesn’t imply we need to continue the status quo. Smaller electric vehicles, like e-bikes or e-scooters, can replace a lot of car trips. We just have make people see it. A lot of people just can’t imagine anything much different than what already exists.

    Incidentally, I’m reading that commercial solar generation is now around $0.02/kW-hr, and falling fast. We’ll be under $0.01/kW-hr within a few years. While this isn’t quite having your cake and eating it too, it’s a good indicator that there will be less of a need for the hard-core type of energy conservation many in the climate change movement are espousing. Sure, we’ll probably have to cut back until we’re using 100% renewables, but at least the future doesn’t look like one where people will have to do without heat or A/C or lights at night.

    One area where I think sacrifice will be necessary is air travel. There are no non-carbon-producing alternatives on the horizon. The only answer to cut back all unnecessary business air travel, and perhaps all recreational air travel, until viable alternatives to air travel, like maglevs in vacuum tubes, come online.

  6. I wonder if the dems are interested in reinstating the bicycle commuter act which got repealed as part of the Trumpian tax “reform”. It was nice while it lasted, and it probably cost the federal government about $17 a year…

  7. The key to reducing carbon in transportation is to focus on short trips instead of long trips. That means focus on walking and biking instead of cars, and planes.

  8. I personally think EVs are overrated. EVs still have plenty of the same negative externalities that diesel vehicles have: cars claim the lives of thousands of people — both pedestrians and drivers — every year. EVs still take up the same amount of space in the big city as do diesel vehicles: we don’t have enough space for everyone to drive into Manhattan or any other big city, and store their car there all day. And not everyone can afford or is physically capable of driving a car: the more dependent we are on cars, the more we increase the cost of participation in society — with low-income and the disabled most adversely affected.

    Further, most residential properties on the edges of the urban core in places like NYC, Boston, DC, SF, etc. do not have a garage to charge an electric vehicle. Most of these people walk, bike, or take public transit most of the time, and drive very little. [I live in an upscale condo in an upscale area, and my garage is unsuited to charge an AV. I can’t imagine what the case is for middle-income folks.]. EVs would likely encourage marginal one-car families on the edge of the urban core to move to the suburbs and become a two-car family with a garage to charge their EVs. I don’t see how this is a good thing as it increases sprawl.

  9. No argument about the negative externalities. However, the one big externality you’re avoiding with EVs is discharging pollutants in population centers. That’s a big thing as motor vehicles in cities kill ten times as many people indirectly as they do directly.

    My point here is you’re not getting rid of motor vehicles in cities in the short or medium term. Electrifying them gets rid of pollution and noise problems.

    Getting rid of unnecessary motor vehicles is something which should be done whether or not we electrify motor vehicles. Ironically, electrifying might work in your favor. If the situation of lack of charging infrastructure is really as dire as you say, then if we mandated EVs only in major cities, these people would give up owning a car as they would have no viable means to charge it.

    EVs would likely encourage marginal one-car families on the edge of the urban core to move to the suburbs and become a two-car family with a garage to charge their EVs.

    This would only potentially happen if cities continue to subsidize suburbs. If we start making people pay the true cost of low-density living, most won’t be able to afford the suburbs.

    If we don’t encourage EVs, we’ll likely still have just as many motor vehicles, only they will continue to spew noise and pollution into our cities. I don’t know why reducing motor vehicle use needs to be a prerequisite to electrification.

  10. Considering the health benefits of cycling, I’m thinking they should pay you per mile to ride whether it’s commuting or not. It doesn’t even need to be a large amount. I’m thinking maybe a few cents per mile. If you ride 4,000 miles a year, maybe you’ll get a check from the government for $100 every year.

  11. This one is hard to audit. I’d propose simply allowing bikeshare memberships to be used as part of commuter benefit. Commuter benefit also needs to be indexed to fares rather than general inflation. My Train pass goes up in price way faster than inflation.

  12. There’s a disconnect here since electricity rates keep going up, not down. I bet that even if Hawaii went full wind + solar, it wold still cost more than today.

  13. I’m not sure it’s any more dangerous per mile than a bike or walking. There haven’t been stats normalizing injuries on per/mile basis where they can be compared to to other modes of transport.

    It’s also worth noting what causes the injury – car, pedestrian, another scooter? Would you ban walking because people keep getting hit by cars?

  14. You know what’s going to happen when self-driving electric cars are finally common: the companies will lobby to kill what little rights pedestrians and bicyclists have now, in order to clear the roads for their speeding electric cars.
    In my state, pedestrians have the right to cross the street everywhere except freeways and on a block where there is a traffic signal at both ends of the block. We also have the right-of-way to travel across all street corners, regardless if one street is wider or has no stop sign. There will be an effort to reduce or eliminate these rights and thus make walking infeasible as the times and distances required to get anywhere will be too great.

  15. I don’t have an issue with EVs but I do have an issue with EVs being seen as this panacea. I live in Chicago and in my daily life I have no need for a car. However, there are times when I need a car: to visit my family in Arkansas (I’d rather drive than spew more carbon into the atmosphere via a plane), to go on trips out into expansive plots of nature, etc. In those times I wouldn’t mind having an EV with a nice long range to rent.

    The goal, IMO, should be to reduce the need for a car in everyday life and have decent car share services available for those times when you do need a car.

  16. I’d love to see a “community” or car share approach to EVs. In an ideal world EVs would be available to rent sort of like bike share except not as widespread as bikeshare because the world needs less cars/ less space devoted to cars.

  17. Right, EVs shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to continue the automotive dominance of society just because they lower the carbon footprint of driving. I never said otherwise. There are some people who think once we convert to EVs it’ll be back to business as usual, driving SUVs with one passenger thousands of miles a year. The problem is vehicles have a carbon footprint to make. The roads they drive on have a carbon footprint. There are very real consequences of automotive use in terms of deaths/injuries which won’t go away just because the vehicles are powered by batteries. We should still continue disincentives to driving even as we electrify the fleet as rapidly as possible.

  18. But we continue to subsidize suburbs/driving through mandatory parking minimums, unpriced highways, raising transit fares but not driving fares, cutting transit service, single-family zonining, etc.

  19. Subsidies for automobile based transportation should be gradually phased out. The country should be careful to avoid abruptly ceasing subsidies because that would be too disruptive. Many motorists drive because that’s the only viable option, mostly influenced by the built environment that supports driving while interfering with greener forms of transportation. Phasing out subsidies provides time for the built environment to adapt without placing sudden financial burdens on Americans who essentially stumbled into car dependency.

  20. Unfortunately, a lot of that is probably “delivery charges”. Same thing here in NYC. The supply can be 6 or 7 cents per kW-hr but the delivery, which is basically maintenance of the lines, is around $0.13/kW-hr. Even if the supply was free, you would still be paying at least for delivery unless you have your own solar panels. That’s probably the way to go in Hawaii anyway given how high the rates are there.

    Another thing we tried here in New York was competition among electric suppliers. Instead of buying your power from the utility which maintained the lines, you could buy it from an ESCO. In theory competition was supposed to lower prices. In practice these ESCOs are all scammers who give you a low teaser rate, then jack it up in 6 months or a year. I was incensed to discover I paid about $600 more last year than I would have just buying my power from the utility. Needless to say, I switched back.

  21. Pretty good interview. Even though I am nearly anti-scooter, I really wouldn’t want the full weight of the federal government to come down on regulating them. I hope in a year or two, the world gets out of its scooter frenzy and recognizes that these cheap, Silicon Valley cash grabs are just that, and they fall into the trash heap. Which likely will cause more environmental problems, but it is better than them being actively used.

  22. The article doesn’t cite specific instances, but it does discuss the current $100 bn shortfall in state-of-good-repair projects and the fact that it’s not just causing wasted resources, it’s actually causing injuries and even deaths.

  23. In my hometown, Eugene, Oregon, there is a Bike/Ped bridge crossing the Willamette River named for DeFazio, who got federal $$$ for it, several years ago.

  24. “your “electric” car has a 50/50 chance of being coal-fired!”

    Um, did you read your own link? Even your own link says that coal is about 30%, not 50% of the US’s energy mix. Coal use has been dropping for years.

  25. A fee on aviation fuel, (still leaded, like NASCAR gasoline) could subsidize charging stations along interstates. Part of the distance problem with EV’s is the models are designed based on passenger cars, based on horse and buggy side by side seating, instead of early airplane= tandem seating and are heavier than necessary. Wind resistance and lane use from these designs are energy and resource hogs, especially since so many trips are single occupant. Vehicle width is why so many motorists say they can’t pass cyclists safely without crossing into the oncoming lane on two lane roads, a constant driver complaint around where I live, winding, narrow roads with poor sight lines. So they blame cyclists, instead of questioning why they need an 8′ wide vehicle.

  26. The medical and educational costs from vehicle pollution (not just tailpipe, but noise, road dust=microplastics from tires, plus toxic heavy metals, and dried dog dung) haven’t been fully calculated. Statistically the closer one lives or works to a major highway the more medical and educational disabilities, usually attributed to air pollution, although noise levels are indicated in cardiac cases. Probably some other issues not yet measured either.

  27. Trains, buses and other mass transit are the ONLY hope for green house gas targets, dealing with Peak Oil and with improving the US economy for the majority. We need to rebuild infrastructure but we can’t waste it on cars and suburbia which do not scale and have a net negative ROI!

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