Infrastructure is finally at the center of U.S. political discourse. But debates about the border wall aren’t what Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the new chairman of the House’s transportation and infrastructure committee, wants to talk about. He wants to sound the alarm about the backlog of repairs fueling an economic—and environmental—crisis.
“If we don’t make these investments, we’re going to become more carbon-intensive, in terms of transportation, and have the potential for economic catastrophe when something like the tunnels under the Hudson River go down,” says DeFazio. “I’m going to approach it from a very hard-hearted way: Boy, you’re stupid if you don’t make these investments.”
DeFazio has spent much of his career working on bipartisan plans to boost spending on important transportation projects. He takes control of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a pivotal time, when technology advances, long-term funding issues, and climate change demand a comprehensive, forward-thinking plan.
After last November’s elections, the congressman said he hoped to pass a new infrastructure bill through the House in the first six months of the new Congress. While the shutdown has changed his calculations—DeFazio has spent the last few weeks working to get back pay and benefits to federal workers, including members of the Coast Guard and TSA—he plans to meet with the committee this Thursday and plan its first hearing.
Curbed spoke to DeFazio about his plans for the transportation committee, how new technology is changing the game, and an easy way to improve Congressional cooperation.
Patrick Sisson: When this shutdown ends, can both parties come together around infrastructure? You’ve worked on numerous bipartisan proposals, and members of both parties all agree this spending is desperately needed.
Rep. Peter DeFazio: Well, I’m hopeful. We’re long overdue, and the costs of inaction are becoming more and more apparent. We wasted 6 billion gallons of gas idling and 3.1 billion gallons sitting in traffic last year. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has quantified the cost to owners of driving their vehicles through poor road infrastructure.
One way I’m going to push this plan is to emphasize what [happens] if we don’t invest. What happens when, say, the Civil War-era rail tunnels under Baltimore fail? What happens when the tunnels under the Hudson River fails? What happens when the bridges of Interstate 5 fail in Portland from a catastrophic earthquake? What happens when the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge from Kentucky to Ohio fails?
Once people understand that, perhaps we’ll have an easier time backing a bill and moving forward on addressing the massive backlog needed to bring infrastructure up to a good state of repair, let alone build out an energy-efficient and resilient infrastructure for the 21st century.
How can you stay positive with both the huge shortfalls in infrastructure funding, and the government disarray in D.C. right now?
PD: Well, I totally separate the issues. I’m pretty angry or depressed about the shutdown on a daily basis. But that doesn’t keep me from planning and working on a plan for 21st-century surface transportation. You just need to compartmentalize a little bit, or a lot.
Will you support raising the federal gas tax? A law you introduced with the line “a penny for progress,” suggests we can do a lot with just a slight bump in gas tax funding.
PD: I don’t get to choose the funding mechanism. I have put forward a series of three proposals that would get us close to $500 billion of paid-for investment, using, for instance, the harbor tax for harbor investment [currently billions in already-collected tax revenue meant for maintenance is sitting in the treasury, unspent], or allowing airports to build out capacity by raising the passenger facility charge, which they haven’t done in 15 years.
And then I propose a penny for progress program, which would use a slight increase in the gas tax to issue 30-year bonds to funding infrastructure. I’d cap the annual increase on the gas tax to 1.5 cents a gallon. With that increase, we project we could issue bonds on an annual basis that would not only fill in the $16 billion hole in the federal budget for current transit spending, but give us an additional $17 billion a year to invest in rebuilding and building out a new, more resilient infrastructure. Make it 2 cents a gallon, and we’d get an additional $21 billion a year.
Anybody afraid of an increase of 1.5 cents or 2 cents a gallon to get people out of congestion and make transit more reliable and available to people doesn’t belong in Congress.
There’s a significant change in transportation technology in U.S. cities, with the rise of dockless scooters and bikes, electric vehicles, Uber and Lyft. Are you planning to get more involved in regulating, or even promoting, these technologies?
PD: We are going to need new technology and innovation. We need some breakthroughs In terms of movement of freight, we’ll need to look at electrifying the system, both for automobiles and trucks. We need to be adopting that vision.
Companies like Uber, Lime, Bird, and Lyft, they’re doing very well on their own. The issues the government needs to be involved in are autonomous vehicles and flying cars.
Transportation is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the U.S. Will you seek to expand transit infrastructure while encouraging things like mass transit, pedestrian infrastructure, and electric vehicles?
PD: First off, and this should be a no-brainer, we need to encourage alternate modes, like bringing back Safe Routes to Schools, which gave people more opportunities to use bikes and scooters where they could safely be used. Republicans hated that program, and it was diminished by them.
But beyond that, right now, we know of two ways to go. One would be fuel cells, but then the question would be how you produce green hydrogen, and can you do it on the proper scale? We need a lot of investment in green hydrogen and more reliable fuel cells. That’s one way to go, the other is electric.
That’s a question that’s beyond my bill. But we need to move ahead with electrification and more ahead with electrified transportation. We need better battery technology, and that’s something the government should be investing in. We need a breakthrough, which involves a tremendous amount of federal research and investment and encouragement.
One of the solutions many point to, with technology that already exists, is more public and mass transportation.
PD: The problem we have right now is that we have a $100 billion backlog to bring it up to a state of good repair. That’s important for a couple of reasons. You would get more people to use transit if they knew they could get there safely and reliably. We need to take existing transit and make it better and more reliable, and build out transit to get people out of their single-occupancy vehicles. And then of course, we need higher speed, if not high-speed, rail.
You talk about supporting greener infrastructure that helps to reduce carbon pollution, and is more resilient and better equipped to handle the impacts of climate change. Sounds a lot like the Green New Deal; do you find any synergy there?
PD: It’s a vision, there’s no legislation introduced. The things I’m talking about in transportation would fit into that vision. But the vision goes beyond transportation.
Finally, have you made any movement getting a rules change to allow six-packs on the House floor?
PD: Well, you know, the British have bars in Parliament, it might help things around here. I heard the Republicans have wine in their cloakroom, we have nothing. At least a kegerator would be good.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.