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Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal May Be A Tough Sell To The Rest Of Congress

Construction underway on the Chicago Transit Authority's Belmont Flyover project.
David Schaper
Construction underway on the Chicago Transit Authority's Belmont Flyover project.

President Biden is celebrating a big win for one of his top legislative priorities, touting a bipartisan agreement on a framework to roughly double spending on transportation and infrastructure over the next eight years.

"Today is a huge day for one-half of my economic agenda," Biden said Thursday as he lauded the agreement that would spend $1.2 billion to repair, rebuild and expand roads, bridges, railroads, public transit, airports, water and sewer infrastructure and broadband.

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, one of the lead GOP negotiators among the 21 senators who brokered the deal, said he was "pleased" the two parties were able to reach an agreement on the package.

"It's something that traditionally has been very bipartisan," Portman said. "And I'm very pleased to see today that we are able to come together on a core infrastructure package ... without new taxes."

But while infrastructure spending may indeed be something that enjoys bipartisan support, there are still major differences between and even within both parties over what the spending priorities should be, and even over what should be called "infrastructure."

Some wanted bigger and bolder infrastructure package

Those differences between more progressive Democrats on the left, more conservative Republicans on the right, and a few moderates from both parties in the middle, seem to reflect the broader partisan and cultural divide across the country.

Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema noted that the senators now have to go back to Capitol Hill and sell the deal to their colleagues. Some of them wanted a much bigger and bolder infrastructure package that would shift spending priorities away from traditional car and truck-centric highways and bridges, and would instead increase access to transit and other less gas-guzzling modes of transportation.

"It is critical that we're transforming how we invest," says Amy Rynell, executive director of the Chicago based Active Transportation Alliance. "Our interest is really in how do we support active forms of transportation, be it pedestrian safety, bicycle travel or transit, because otherwise, we are undergirding a car-centric status quo that we know is really unhealthy for our environment, our health and our community."

She points to a massive transit construction project on Chicago's north side called the Belmont Flyover as an example of spending that can improve the efficiency of transit, reduce congestion, and get more people out of their cars.

The flyover is being built at a spot where three of the Chicago Transit Authority's elevated rail lines merge together, creating lengthy delays as trains often must sit and wait while other trains cross in front of them.

A crew repaving a street in Chicago. Many Republicans would prefer to see infrastructure spending prioritize road and highway construction projects like this over rail, transit and other modes.
/ David Schaper
David Schaper
A crew repaving a street in Chicago. Many Republicans would prefer to see infrastructure spending prioritize road and highway construction projects like this over rail, transit and other modes.

Looking at how safe everyone can be traveling

The flyover will untangle this 114-year old junction by elevating one rail line over the other two, bypassing that choke point, allowing for more trains and faster and smoother commutes for some 150,000 riders a day.

It's part of a $2 billion CTA modernization project that is funded in part by the last big federal infrastructure package.

"Federal dollars for projects like this are critical for them even happening at all," Rynell says.

She and other transit and active transportation advocates were thrilled the Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress initially proposed plans with a much greater emphasis on projects like this, that address climate change and equity.

"Through those two lenses, transportation looks a lot different," Rynell says. "Instead of building a road or highway that divides a community, how do we build a transportation mode that unites a community and helps people get what they need. Instead of how fast can we get a car down a road, we're looking at how safe can everyone traveling be, be it a pedestrian, cyclist or a driver."

"We are upending decades of status quo," says House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) about his transportation spending bill, which passed the committee two week ago 38-26, with only two Republicans voting for it.

A road works crew repaves a street in a Chicago neighborhood.
/ David Schaper
David Schaper
A road works crew repaves a street in a Chicago neighborhood.

Republicans want to pull back on Democratic efforts

"I'm not going to do Eisenhower 8.0," DeFazio says, referring to the initiative in the 1950s that created the Interstate highway system, and helped accelerate suburban growth and sprawl. "This is the 21st century in the United States of America. Building more highways and fixing some bridges is not an answer to congestion."

DeFazio still plans to bring his bill to the House floor for a vote next week, and says it would shift spending priorities in several new ways.

The bill has a "fix it first" provision that would require state departments of transportation to repair or rebuild existing infrastructure before building new roads or adding highway lanes. It would also require a cost benefit analysis to determine if transit would be a better option than increasing road or highway capacity for cars and trucks.

But Republicans aren't having it, and they want to pull back on Democratic efforts to spend big on things like transit, passenger rail and bike lanes.

"The Biden administration plan is wildly excessive," said Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in a committee hearing last week on Biden's plan to boost transit spending by tens of billions of dollars. "The administration seems to have lost sight of the fact that the federal role in infrastructure spending has been limited, and state and local governments are primarily responsible" for funding such projects, he said, adding that taxpayers in his state shouldn't have to fund transit elsewhere.

"For example, a bus or a light rail station in San Francisco doesn't really do a lot for people in Pittsburgh," Toomey said.

Many experts on the subject say that long-held position by many Republicans is a reflection of the country's bitter partisan divide.

Difficult to find a balance acceptable to both parties

"We've gotten polarized to the point that Republicans are the rural and ex-urban party and Democrats are the urban and inner suburban party," says Jeff Davis of the non-partisan Eno Center on Transportation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "And it's very difficult these days to find a highway versus transit balance that can be acceptable to both parties."

But Davis says some Republicans are willing to go along with Democratic efforts to boost spending substantially for passenger rail, in order to keep long distance Amtrak trains running through places like North Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas.

And as extreme weather takes a greater toll across the country, he says some in the GOP even appear willing to support some climate change initiatives, as long as you don't call it that.

"If you use the words 'climate change' or 'green,' Republicans will run away," Davis says. "But you can fund most of the exact same projects, the exact amount of money, if you call it resiliency, or extreme weather preparedness or whatever, instead of calling it climate change or green, Republicans will vote for it."

The bipartisan framework agreement does include nearly $47 billion in funding for resiliency, as well as $66 billion for freight and passenger rail, $49 billion for transit and $109 billion for roads and bridges. There's even $15 billion for electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure. Those figures are on top of baseline spending amounts Congress was already planning to authorize.

But it still must pass the House and the Senate, where the extremes in both parties may try to add to, subtract from, or otherwise derail the massive infrastructure plan.

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David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.