House passes a major infrastructure bill - but not the one you're thinking of

July 01, 2021

WASHINGTON — The House passed a significant infrastructure bill Thursday that would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the Bay Area and beyond and make climate-friendly policy changes to federal transportation programs.

Most everyone involved acknowledges it won’t become law as is, given the current political dynamics. But passing the bill is nonetheless a significant data point, as it gives the Bay Area an indication of what could be coming if President Biden succeeds at passing the big-ticket infrastructure law he’s negotiating with the Senate.

What the House passed Thursday is known as the surface transportation bill. Every five years, give or take some extensions Congress grants itself, lawmakers must reauthorize federal spending programs on highways, transit, rail and other transportation programs. That includes refilling the coffers of those programs, and there is a deadline for it at the end of September.

The $715 billion bill the House passed Thursday, however, is more than the usual reauthorization process because it comes amid an effort by Biden to enact a massive infrastructure investment as one of his signature presidential achievements. Most of the attention on that negotiation has been on the Senate, where a 60-vote threshold to advance legislation requires working with Republicans to pass bills. Biden has secured a tentative deal with a bipartisan group of senators on a legislative package.

But that bill remains largely in the form of bullet points, whereas the bill Thursday out of the House contains significant legislative language that its authors are hoping provides a strong starting point for negotiators to flesh out the particulars of their bill. From bridge repairs to BART improvements, it contains significant money for infrastructure work in and around the Bay Area.

“This is a super important policy marker, and it’s one of the reasons the House needed to get this out before this bipartisan group of senators start fleshing out their proposal,” San Rafael Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman told The Chronicle. “We’re not just potted plants over here; we’ve put a huge amount of work into the policy of these things and we’re not going to have a better opportunity in our lifetimes to transform the transportation sector, so we’re not just going to cede that to 10 senators.”

The House bill got only two Republican votes, however, an indication of the opposition that persists among the GOP to some of House Democrats’ top priorities. In the Senate, a counterpart surface transportation package was a much more modest $303 billion, indicating a smaller appetite for the must-pass reauthorization due in September.

What’s in the House bill is significant for the Bay Area in two ways. First, it effectively redesigns federal transportation funding for the next five years to prioritize major climate priorities such as electric vehicles, energy-efficient transit and alternatives to fossil fuels. Second is that the bill marks the return of federal earmarks, or targeted spending allocations, that together constitute a small part of its overall cost but can amount to big money for local communities. Both elements could find their way into either the final reauthorization bill or an infrastructure package.

“Last time I checked, the House of Representatives was a co-equal part of the U.S. Congress,” said Concord Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier. “Rather than wait around to see what the Senate’s going to do, we’re respectful of their process, but we did our work.”

For the first time in a decade, lawmakers were able to ask for money to support specific projects in their districts under new transparency requirements enacted by House Democrats. All of the Bay Area’s Democratic lawmakers did so, and several of the nearby Republicans in Northern California did as well.

The final bill contains money to fulfill many of those requests to the tune of around $20 million per district for the Bay Area’s 10 Democratic representatives, with some overlapping projects. The North Bay, for example, would get $7 million to improve Route 37 put in by Huffman and St. Helena Rep. Mike Thompson and more than $13.6 million to rehab the Healdsburg Russian River rail bridge.

In the South Bay, San Mateo Rep. Jackie Speier and Palo Alto Rep. Anna Eshoo got nearly $12 million altogether for US-101 improvements and Speier got $3 million for Caltrain at-grade crossings upgrades. San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren got nearly $8 million for highway-rail crossings in the Warm Springs neighborhood.

In the East Bay, Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee’s funded projects include $3 million for East Bay BART station public restroom upgrades and $3 million for Bay Bridge transit upgrades. Livermore Rep. Eric Swalwell got $20 million for the Valley Link project, to connect BART to the Altamont Corridor Express. DeSaulnier’s funded projects include $6 million for traffic signal improvements along I-680.

Not everybody who secured earmarks voted for the final bill, however. Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford (Kings County), got $20 million for the State Route 41 Excelsior Corridor in Fresno County, but voted against the bill. Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake (San Bernardino County), got money including $5 million for National Trails Highway widening in Victorville, as did Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale (Butte County), who got nearly $2 million for the Roe Road Extension Project in Paradise, and both also voted no.

Despite the no votes, Huffman argued the return of earmarks ultimately means getting projects important for communities funded.

“Every member of Congress is treated the same, this is not some spoil system where friends of the chairman or Democrats or anyone else get a leg up,” Huffman said. “It’s really reclaiming some of our Article I authority to direct how the power of the purse is used. We had ceded all that to the executive branch over the years (and) ... that left a lot of really important projects unfunded.”

Tal Kopan is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: Twitter: @talkopan

By:  Tal Kopan
Source: San Francisco Chronicle