Buttigieg Starts Infrastructure Push With a Warning on China

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned lawmakers that the nation faces a massive backlog of infrastructure projects and is at risk of falling behind competitors like China.

“Across the country, we face a trillion-dollar backlog of needed repairs and improvements, with hundreds of billions of dollars in good projects already in the pipeline,” he said in opening remarks for a U.S. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing Thursday.

“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 said.

Buttigieg Starts Infrastructure Push With a Warning on China

Buttigieg’s testimony came as Biden is considering proposing as much as $3 trillion worth of measures in a long-term economic program to address key issues, including infrastructure and climate change. The president’s top aides have spent the last several days weighing how to advance the plan in the face of staunch GOP opposition.

Buttigieg addressed the issue of paying for the slew of projects.

“I’ve heard loud and clear from members of Congress, Republican and Democratic, that an infrastructure proposal needs to have at least a partial funding source,” he said. “I know that’s a challenging conversation.”

While the details remain in flux, aides are leaning toward separating Biden’s policy plans into two bills -- one focused on infrastructure and the other on issues including child care, college tuition and health care -- with tax hikes to offset part of the cost. Biden laid out many of the policy details, including tax increases, during the campaign.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that Biden was still finalizing the plan but will lay out details in a speech Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

Buttigieg told the lawmakers they have “the best chance in any of our lifetimes to make a generational investment in infrastructure.” He cited the Biden administration’s plan as a logical next step in the road to recovery from the pandemic after Congress approved a $1.9 trillion Covid relief that was proposed by the president.

“The infrastructure status quo is a threat to our collective future,” he said. “We face an imperative to create resilient infrastructure and confront inequities that have devastated communities.”

Lawmakers in both parties agreed with Buttigieg’s assertion that the nation has large infrastructure challenges, but they disagreed on the size and scope of the bill Biden is preparing to submit to Congress -- and how to pay for it.

‘Tired of Potholes’

“There’s obviously very broad agreement the American public needs and wants, American business and individuals: the nation’s crumbling infrastructure to be rebuilt,” Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said in his opening remarks for the hearing.

“They’re tired of potholes, tired of detours, failed bridges, congestion and all the problems. They’re tired of water mains that blow up,” DeFazio said.

DeFazio cited a study from the American Society of Civil Engineers that he said documents an investment gap of $2.6 trillion over the next decade to fix the nation’s existing infrastructure, meet future needs, and restore American competitiveness on the global stage.

“Last year we passed a bill out of this committee that was $500 billion, give or take,” he said. “Given the magnitude of the problem, that’s a good start. There were those that said that was too much. It isn’t too much. I’ll look forward to hearing from the Biden administration what sort of numbers they want to set.”

U.S. Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the panel, said in his opening remarks that an infrastructure package should be narrowly tailored to focus chiefly on roads and bridges. He asked Buttigieg how the plan would be funded, particularly whether he supports funding highway projects with a fee based on how many miles someone travels instead of how much gasoline they pump.

“We need stable, predictable multiyear funding,” Buttigieg said. “Both because of the difficulty in Washington to adjusting the gas tax historically, and looking to the future, the changing role of gasoline in the use of cars outright, we’re obviously going to need to come to more solutions if we want to preserve that user pays principle.”

DeFazio said the forthcoming infrastructure bill will also incorporate provisions designed to address climate change, which has been a priority for the Biden administration and congressional Democrats.

“We’re going to rebuild in a way that is going to resilient to severe weather events,” he said. “It’ll be resilient to climate change. That means extreme weather events, sea level rise. We’re also going to build resilient to other threats, earthquakes in the West in particular and even now fires.”

Graves pressed Democrats to ensure equity between the rural and urban areas as funding for projects is doled out and eschew their plans to tie their climate goals to the effort to boost the nation’s funding infrastructure projects.

“A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal,” he said. “It needs to be about roads and bridges.”

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