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Buttigieg pushes infrastructure spending as national security, environmental linchpin

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — The Biden administration's $3 trillion infrastructure package can impact America's economic and diplomatic security worldwide, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told members of Congress Thursday. 

"We face a trillion-dollar backlog of needed repairs and improvements," Buttigieg told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing on the administration's transportation infrastructure plans.

"We see other countries pulling ahead of us, with consequences for strategic and economic competition. By some measures, China spends more on infrastructure every year than the U.S. and Europe combined," he continued. "The infrastructure status quo is a threat to our collective future."

The hearing comes as the administration and Congress prepare to work on a massive spending package intended to shore up the nation's road, bridge, rail and water systems and tackle everything from climate change to racial and economic injustice.

"Every dollar we spend rebuilding from a climate-driven disaster is a dollar we could have spent building a more competitive, modern and resilient transportation system that produces significantly lower emissions," Buttigieg said in his opening statement. "It doesn’t have to be this way."

The proposal is certain to be the subject of fierce partisan debate, with Democrats pushing for sweeping legislation that would address a wider range of infrastructure and climate solutions, and Republicans calling for more focused legislation that would address traditional infrastructure needs and carry a smaller price tag.

The legislation is not going to be about "just the same old tired solutions. You can't add infinitely more lane miles in many areas of this country," said Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.

Instead, it will target underserved communities to build resilient, sustainable transit systems based around helping people get where they need to go, he said. "These are not aspirational, these are all achievable."

Meanwhile, the committee's leading Republican, Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, argued "it's about the highway bill." 

A bipartisan bill that focuses on roads and bridges and balances rural and urban priorities should be the priority, he said. "I don’t think the bill can grow into a multi-trillion catchall. It needs to be manageable and responsible."

While the plan is not finalized, White House allies are considering splitting the proposals into two bill packages. One, focused more narrowly on infrastructure, they hope would gain Republican support. The other — focused on other issues on the president's agenda such as health care, child care and education — would be put in another package that would likely be pushed through using budget reconciliation without Republican support.  

Earlier this month, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report estimating the U.S. would need to spend an additional $2.6 trillion on infrastructure to make it adequately safe and sustainable. Republicans and Democrats in Washington have long agreed more funding is necessary but have failed to agree on the details of spending proposals in recent years. 

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, asked Buttigieg how the administration plans to pay for the package, which experts estimate will cost at least $3 trillion. "We do have to fund this some way," Young said. 

"I’ve heard loud and clear from members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, that an infrastructure proposal needs to have at least a partial funding source. I know that's a challenging conversation," Buttigieg said. "There are a simple set of places we could look: User fees, the general fund or other tax sources as Congress has done to fill gaps in the Highway Trust Fund in recent years, or borrowing.”

The bulk of the funding will come from whatever Congress chooses to authorize of those three options, he said.

The U.S. gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993. However, the Biden administration has pushed back on increasing that tax because it would constitute a tax hike on those who make less than $400,000, which would violate a campaign promise. Policymakers are exploring other solutions, including a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, taxes on corporations and the wealthy, or continued borrowing. 

Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, asked Buttigieg whether he would support phasing out the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines, akin to the policy announced by California Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall.

Buttigieg responded: "I have not heard anything to that effect at the federal level," but added that companies like General Motors Co. are moving to phase out ICE vehicle sales on their own. "That certainly seems to be where the U.S. auto industry is headed," he said.

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki has said Biden will unveil details of the infrastructure plan next Wednesday in Pittsburgh. 

Biden will also hold his first press conference Thursday afternoon. He's likely to touch on infrastructure priorities in addition to gun control, foreign policy, immigration and more. 

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @rbeggin