House Democrats propose using reconciliation to spend $20 billion on transit and rail

WASHINGTON - Democrats on the House Transportation Committee, frozen out of this summer's negotiations on infrastructure spending, are hoping to use the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package to fund some of their top priorities, including transit, high-speed rail and efforts to improve the environment.

The committee's spending proposals, released Friday, include $10 billion for a program to support transit, $10 billion for high-speed rail, $4 billion to reduce carbon emissions and $4 billion to reconnect communities divided by highways.

Many of the big-ticket items in the proposal reflect ideas President Joe Biden endorsed in his initial infrastructure proposals in the spring but that were whittled down as a bipartisan group of senators worked to turn them into a $1 trillion bill that could secure Republican support.

Those negotiations resulted in a fairly conventional transportation bill that left many House Democrats and left-leaning advocates disappointed. The reconciliation package provides a route to restoring some of their vision, which was reflected in a $760 billion transportation and water spending proposal that passed the House on partisan lines.

The attempt could run afoul of a pledge Biden made that the reconciliation package wouldn't tread the same ground as the infrastructure bill. But Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the Transportation Committee, previously told The Washington Post he doesn't feel bound by that agreement.

"In fact, I don't believe anybody in the majority in the Senate, except for a couple of senators, signed off on that agreement," he said. "We're working with the White House to see if there are ways around it."

Transit, in particular, was a source of tension between the parties in the Senate, and the final bill called for $10 billion less than an initial framework. The new House proposal would create a joint program between the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to support struggling communities. The $10 billion in grants would be designed to help people get to affordable housing, jobs and school.

Creating a new joint program, rather than using existing methods of funding transit, is in line with one of the ways DeFazio suggested Democrats might be able to sidestep questions about double-dipping. Yet, trying to create new programs in the reconciliation bill could run afoul of Senate rules about how lawmakers can use the special procedure, which allows legislation to pass without being filibustered.

Dozens of House Democrats want to spend even more on transit, writing to congressional leaders Thursday calling for another $30 billion.

"The urgency of the climate crisis and the need for a robust economic recovery demand more," they wrote.

The funds to reconnect communities and address the harms of highway building reflected an idea that Biden championed but which would ultimately receive just $1 billion under the bipartisan package.

The committee's proposals would also seek to set aside funding to be used by groups other than state transportation departments, which some advocates say are too focused on building major roads at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. It includes $1 billion for Indian tribes, while $3 billion of the carbon reduction money would not be available to states. Another $6 billion is included in a fund that could be used to back earmarked projects favored by individual lawmakers and communities in their districts.

The infrastructure bill would mark a dramatic step up in the federal government's funding for rail, calling for $66 billion. The House committee wants to add another $10 billion to that in the form of grants targeted at high-speed rail, which have gained limited traction in the United States. High-speed rail was not addressed head on in the Senate bill.

Other big-ticket items in the package dovetail with the Biden administration's priorities: $2.5 billion to address congestion at ports and $1 billion to reduce carbon emissions from aviation, including by using sustainable aviation fuels.