U.S. House Democrats propose $547 billion surface transport plan

News conference on infrastructure on Capitol Hill in Washington

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A group of key U.S. House Democrats introduced legislation on Friday to authorize $547 billion in additional spending over five years on surface transport, a plan that would mostly go to fixing existing U.S. roads and bridges and increase funding for passenger rail and transit.

House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio said in a statement the proposal seizes on a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to move our transportation planning out of the 1950s and toward our clean energy future.”

The bill adopts some proposals made by Democratic President Joe Biden as part of his broader $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize surface transportation programs. Other committees have jurisdiction over other aspects of infrastructure spending.

The 1,249-page proposal comes as Biden and Senate Republicans are in talks over a massive jump in U.S. infrastructure spending. Biden wants $1 trillion in new spending over eight years over “baseline” spending on highways, bridges and transit, while Republicans have called for about $250 billion in new spending.

The plan introduced by DeFazio and other senior committee Democrats would authorize $343 billion for roads, bridges and safety – including $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The panel will hold a June 9 hearing on the proposal to consider amendments.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan bill last week to spend $303.5 billion on highways over five years, a 34% increase over the last highway reauthorization bill approved in 2015.

DeFazio’s plan also calls for $109 billion for transit and $95 billion for rail, including tripling funding for U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak to $32 billion. It would require Amtrak to set aside at least 2.5% of all annual government funding “to enhance the passenger experience on long-distance routes.”

It would authorize $4.1 billion for grants to buy electric transit buses, create a $500 million grant program to reduce traffic gridlock in large metropolitan areas and $1 billion to address the shortage of parking for commercial motor vehicles and allow for heavier electric vehicles on U.S. roads and mandate additional safety features in new school buses.

House Republicans called the Democrats’ proposal a “new ‘My Way or the Highway Bill” and said it prioritizes green efforts “to an extent that cripples the real infrastructure improvements communities across the country need.”

One big question in all the plans remains how to pay for them as gas tax revenue has not kept up with repair needs. Biden wants higher corporate tax rates and other levies on the wealthy to pay for repairs and has also suggested a fee on commercial truck driving.

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Raju Gopalakrishnan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)