Elizabeth Warren and AOC Lay Down Climate Challenge to Biden

Progressives in the House and Senate plan to set down a marker Thursday for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plans, introducing a $500 billion proposal to shift U.S. transportation away from fossil fuels.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two proponents of the Green New Deal, are behind the bill, joined by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Andy Levin of Michigan. Their plan aims to accelerate the process of making the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050—a goal Biden campaigned on—by putting the money in the hands of state, local and tribal governments or transit authorities to make sweeping investments in public transit systems.

“The climate crisis is an existential threat to our planet,” Warren said. “But it’s also a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, create a million good new jobs, and unleash the best of American innovation.”

The bill stands little chance of making it through Congress on its own, but the group plans to push the Biden administration to include the measure in its yet-to-be-unveiled next package tackling infrastructure, climate goals, and economic growth. Even that faces multiple obstacles to getting through Congress, however. While Republicans have shown interest in upgrading transportation systems, they’re already raising concerns about adding to the nation’s debt.

Meeting Biden’s net zero pledge will require electrifying much of the economy—including, of course, as much transportation infrastructure as possible. Currently, this sector of the economy accounts for roughly 30% of the country’s annual carbon emissions. Public transit holds a special place in climate activists’ hearts because it maximizes people movement, reduces congestion, and will still be significantly less energy intensive per passenger mile than cars even when individual vehicles are electrified.

Elizabeth Warren and AOC Lay Down Climate Challenge to Biden

This bill, the BUILD GREEN Infrastructure and Jobs Act, works double-time by updating and greening public transit at the same time. It offers a minimum of $150 billion over 10 years for electric vehicle infrastructure and to replace and electrify the nation’s public bus fleet—including commuter buses and school buses—and commuter rail lines, many of which still run on diesel. The rest of the money in the bill will be available for EV charging equipment and infrastructure projects such as highways and bridges, so long as they install EV chargers along the way.

As expected based on Biden’s campaign promises, the bill reserves 40% of funding to “serve a frontline or vulnerable community.” And, perhaps anticipating that all communities will have a hard time raising taxes after Covid, the bill ups the federal contribution to projects from 80% to 85% and gives the Secretary of Transportation the option to wave local matching funds altogether for select projects.

The bill already has 15 co-sponsors—all Democrats, plus Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent—and endorsements from more than a dozen climate advocacy groups.

Democrats used a fast-track budget process to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus package without a single Republican vote, but the president has said he wants the infrastructure package—which could carry a price tag of $2 trillion or more over 10 years—to be bipartisan. It could be easier to lure GOP support for an infrastructure initiative after House Republicans voted Wednesday allow members to request spending on specific projects. Republicans previously banned such dedicated spending, known as earmarks, after several corruption scandals.

Still, the climate provisions will likely get major pushback from Republicans, who’ve used the Green New Deal as a cudgel against Democrats since before it was even introduced as a non-binding resolution in 2019. Progressives may also face opposition from within their own party on measures in the bill that would seek to guarantee a $15 minimum wage for anyone working on projects funded through the bill. Their attempt to include a $15 federal minimum wage in the stimulus bill was foiled by a technicality of the budget process, but moderate Democrats had already come out against it.

Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, estimates that the bill will save $100 billion per year in avoided health costs, prevent 4,200 deaths per year by reducing air pollution, and create a million new jobs. Those created directly through the program would have enhanced labor protections, including three months of paid family leave, but Data for Progress also expects the measure to have ripple effects throughout the power sector. Namely, to generate enough renewable electricity to cover new electricity needs will require $7.5 billion for new power projects and $20 billion for energy storage infrastructure. There’s enough money in the bill for both, according to the think tank.

Putting these measures in the infrastructure bill may make it more difficult for the White House and congressional leadership to keep Democrats united. However Warren has been building clout with Biden, with many of her former staffers and protégés holding key posts in the administration. While the president hasn’t endorsed Warren’s signature proposal, a tax on wealth, his infrastructure bill will likely include several tax increases on wealthy businesses and corporations, constituting the largest tax hike since 1993.

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