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‘Very Flawed’ Infrastructure Bill Passes Senate, Imperfect Reconciliation Bill Looms

6:56 PM EDT on August 10, 2021

Advocates mourned a disappointing infrastructure bill that would put way more construction barriers on newly-expanded highways than barrier-protected bike lanes in cities and towns. Image: NC DOT, cc

The massive infrastructure bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday won't meet the challenges of ending climate change and the U.S. traffic violence crisis, leaving core elements of those critical agendas up to a messy House debate, advocates said.

Despite 11th-hour grandstanding from far-right members of the GOP, 19 Republican Senators crossed the aisle to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which proposes to fund and set the rules for core federal transportation programs for the next five years while injecting $550 billion in new, one-time spending into a range of infrastructure initiatives.

There are a handful of silver linings for walkers and cyclists — like a new rule that would require states to spend more on saving their lives when their deaths make up more than 15 percent of roadway fatality totals — but many advocates nonetheless condemned the Senate for squandering a rare Democratic triple majority that could have fundamentally reoriented U.S. transportation priorities.

"The White House will soon discover that they’ve dealt themselves a challenging hand in their long-term effort to address climate change and persistent inequities, while kicking the can down a crumbling road that’s likely to stay that way," said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, in a statement. "Coming just a day after a dire new IPCC climate report calling for transformational change, the Senate is providing hundreds of billions for status quo programs that will be used to build new roads and produce ever-increasing emissions for decades to come."

The bipartisan package would inject a historic $39 billion into public transit agencies and create new $5-billion “Safe Streets for All” program, but those ostensible wins would be immediately undermined by a more than $100 billion boost to highway spending with no requirements that those funds be used for maintenance on the U.S.’s crumbling roads and bridges — a ratio that Osborne has compared to attempting to "fill a hole with a teaspoon" while simultaneously digging it out "with an excavator."

Even some of the legislation’s silver linings shone less brightly in the final version of the bill.

Advocates had initially praised the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act's efforts to adapt federal motor vehicle safety standards to include overdue safety improvements like automatic emergency braking systems, distracted driver monitoring systems, and new hood and bumper standards that are more forgiving to pedestrians in the event of a crash, but the fine print revealed that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wouldn't be required to accomplish any of those reforms by a specific deadline — which could easily mean they’ll never happen at all. (Read more about the shortcomings of the bill's vehicle safety measures here.)

“President Joe Biden, who personally has endured loss from a motor vehicle and truck crash, should sign a bill that includes the vital safety policy improvements in the INVEST in America Act,” said Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, referring to the far more progressive (if similarly named) House bill that did set deadlines on the overdue reforms. “The House bill protects all road users for years to come no matter what transportation choice you make to reach your destination.”

But whether those critical measures from the House bill will ever make their way to the Senate bill remains to be seen.

In an effort to rush the passage of the bill before their August recess, senators declined to hear the majority of the amendments that advocates say would have been most critical to enhancing the safety, climate and equity measures of the the bill, including a fix-it-first mandate for state highway spending and an additional $4 billion for programs that would reconnect BIPOC communities destroyed by the Federal Highway Act.

For his part, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter De Fazio (D-Ore.) has vowed to fight for those key measures, many of which originated in his much-lauded House reauthorization legislation — even going so far as to say he doesn’t “give a damn about the White House” and its commitment to bipartisan consensus over forward-thinking policy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, has said she won’t even allow Congress to hear the mega-bill until the Senate passes its $3.5-trillion “social infrastructure” budget resolution through reconciliation. But sources say that has less to do with Pelosi holding out for a more progressive transportation package than the Congressional Progressive Caucus's ambition to pass the ambitious social spending agenda — which could mean that the Senate bill is more or less set in stone.

That doesn’t sit right with many sustainable transportation advocates, especially as lawmakers remain in the dark about how the reconciliation package itself will impact how Americans get around. Democrats announced on Monday that the bill would include hundreds of billions in new climate spending (and at least $35 billion in new transportation spending alone), but most sources close to the negotiations believe virtually all of it will be devoted to consumer electric vehicle subsidies rather than additional funding for transit, biking and walking.

Unless some big shake-ups happen in both the the budget proposal and the bipartisan bill, advocates fear that the path to remaking U.S. transportation is going to get a lot rougher once the two pieces of legislation become law.

“We now turn to the House to see if they can bring more of a results-oriented approach to the transportation program," added Osborne. "And we stand ready to work with the administration to change their internal procedures to get the best out of a very flawed piece of legislation.”

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