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Cantwell unveils $78 billion surface transportation bill, including major funding boost for Amtrak, culverts that could aid salmon recovery

UPDATED: Thu., June 10, 2021

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., greets Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg before a confirmation hearing with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill on Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C.  (Ken Cedeno/Associated Press)
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., greets Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg before a confirmation hearing with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill on Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C. (Ken Cedeno/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – The leaders of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation introduced a bill Thursday that would authorize $78 billion in federal spending over five years on the nation’s surface transportation systems, including significant increases over previous years’ spending on Amtrak, freight transportation and safety efforts.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the panel, unveiled the bill along with her Republican counterpart, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Its introduction comes after the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved separate legislation last month to authorize $303.5 billion for roads, bridges and more. Together, the two bills will reset the government’s “baseline” level of yearly spending on surface transportation, which is set to expire at the end of September.

After the previous five-year surface transportation bill expired last September, Congress extended it for 12 months to buy lawmakers time to negotiate new legislation. The baseline spending that would be reauthorized through a surface transportation package is separate from the additional infrastructure investments called for by President Joe Biden.

“In those five years, there’s been kind of a big sea change in transportation infrastructure policy and investment,” Cantwell said. “We’re getting a bigger glimpse of how the whole transportation sector is changing.”

Negotiations over that new spending have stalled in part because GOP proposals have consisted mostly of baseline spending, while the White House has insisted on at least $1 trillion in new spending on programs that fall under Democrats’ broad definition of infrastructure. While the fate of the broader infrastructure package is unclear, the legislation Cantwell introduced is likely to garner support from both sides of the aisle.

On Thursday morning, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved its own surface transportation package totaling $547 billion on a mostly party-line vote, well above the $381.5 billion total of the two Senate bills. The House and Senate will need to reach a compromise and pass identical legislation before Biden can sign it into law, and the bipartisan Senate bills are likely to be closer to the final figures that will reach the president’s desk.

The House bill includes $32 billion for Amtrak over five years, but even the $19 billion Cantwell and Wicker’s bipartisan bill allocates for Amtrak would represent an unprecedented level of federal support for the national passenger railway, which operated at a loss even before the pandemic and requires yearly infusions of cash from Congress to keep running.

“It links a network of cities together and helps us in our rural economies as well as our urban economies,” Cantwell said of Amtrak. “We think that’s an important thing to grow, and … seeing the demands of our transportation infrastructure, we know that rail provides an efficient means, and an alternative to driving and congestion and pollution. Those are things that are very much on everybody’s mind today.”

In addition to the Amtrak funding – part of $36 billion in total rail funding – the bill would authorize $28 billion for freight, $13 billion for road safety programs and another $1 billion for research and development. The legislation would also make a range of reforms to agencies within the Department of Transportation.

Included within that spending is $4 billion to improve and replace culverts to help fish pass under roads, which Cantwell has identified as an important part of salmon recovery efforts in the Northwest.

Those funds promise to help Washington with an estimated $3.7 billion in culvert replacements mandated by a federal court order by 2030.

Cantwell said the higher level of funding for Amtrak may meet opposition in the committee from some in the GOP, but she said Wicker, whose home state lost a major Amtrak route during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, shares her appreciation for passenger rail.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s vice president for state-supported services, told The Spokesman-Review in May “the best thing that can happen” in Congress for the national railway is that “a reauthorization for Amtrak that takes into account our vision moves through the Senate.”

Cantwell said her committee will “mark up” the bill next week, an often dayslong process in which members of the committee can propose and vote on amendments. Once the panel approves the legislation, it will advance to a vote in the full Senate. If the House and Senate pass difference versions of the surface transportation bill, a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers will work to reconcile their differences and pass identical versions before the current authorization ends in September.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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