Senate Panel Advances Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021

By Matt Heller
Jun 16 2021 |
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The bipartisan bill calls for $78 billion in infrastructure spending on rail, freight, truck, and highways as well as new safety measures.

It’s not the big American Jobs Plan proposed by President Biden, but a key congressional committee advanced infrastructure investment legislation on Wednesday.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee voted to approve the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 with a bipartisan vote of 25-3. The bill provides an investment of $78 billion over five years for freight, passenger rail, truck and highway safety measures.

This was the second time over the past two weeks that a Senate panel has advanced a major infrastructure investment package with bipartisan support, and is a reminder that, as Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said, “Infrastructure remains an avenue for bipartisan action.”

The Surface Transportation Investment Act “makes a big down payment on rebuilding and revamping our nation’s critical transportation infrastructure, a key to our economic future and creating more jobs,” said Committee Chairwoman Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “Making sure that U.S. products can reach those new markets [abroad is] one of the key things that we focused on in this legislation. We want Midwestern agricultural products to reach their destination and be able to compete, we want our ports around the United States to be cost effective and competitive, and we want to make sure that our transportation infrastructure works.”

Specifically, the bill calls for $25 billion in multimodal and freight investments, including a $1.5 billion per year grant program for transportation investments. It also authorizes $25 billion to Amtrak, protecting long-distance routes and helping to expand passenger rail service both in the Northeast and around the country. Finally, the bill includes $13 billion for highway, truck, and hazardous materials safety.

This spending is higher than any prior authorization in previous surface transportation investment bill. If approved, the bill would boost the U.S. economy and create new American jobs all across the country.

Senators also had the opportunity at the Committee meeting to introduce amendments to the bill.

One of those amendments, proposed by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) includes a provision that ensures freight rail cars are manufactured and Made in America. Called the SAFE TRAINS Act, the provision works to combat the influence of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that out-compete American manufacturers due to unfair subsidies. They are also able to undercut American manufacturers by using lower environmental and labor standards, and foreign SOEs have also been linked to forced labor.

Some SOEs, such as China’s CRRC, are part of deliberate military-civil fusion strategies to intentionally run rival foreign companies out of business. They thus pose a massive threat not only to American workers and manufacturers, but also to our national security.

If this all sounds familiar, there’s a reason: We’ve long raised the alarm on the issue.

Other proposed amendments looked at mask mandates on public transportation and Amtrak’s financial solvency. Another amendment from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) proposed new regulations for autonomous vehicles, and argued the U.S. will need to guarantee autonomous vehicle developers regulatory certainty in order to lead in this market.

“If the United States does not lead in creating a hospitable and inviting environment for the commercialization of these sorts of technologies after we invest in applied research, then Communist China or other countries are prepared to do so,” Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) said about the proposal.

The amendment ultimately failed, but given the expected rise of autonomous vehicles as a crucial market in the near future, you can expect similar legislation to come up again. As with electric vehicles, the United States will need to support autonomous vehicle production in the long-run if it wishes to ensure that those manufacturing jobs exist here, rather than shift abroad.

The Surface Transportation Investment Act now heads to the Senate floor, where it could further evolve as it likely becomes part of a broader infrastructure passage. Stay tuned to the blog for more coverage of Congress’ work to invest in our crumbling infrastructure and create new American jobs in the process.