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As high-profile infrastructure talks grind along in Congress, Cantwell-led Senate panel approves separate $78 billion transportation bill

Both eastbound and westbound Empire Builder trains pass through Spokane.  (ORION DONOVAN-SMITH/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Both eastbound and westbound Empire Builder trains pass through Spokane. (ORION DONOVAN-SMITH/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

WASHINGTON – While attention at the Capitol remained focused on an uncertain effort to strike a bipartisan deal on new infrastructure spending, on Wednesday the Senate Commerce Committee voted overwhelmingly to approve a five-year, $78 billion transportation bill to boost the federal government’s annual spending on passenger rail, freight transportation, road safety and more.

The panel – chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. – passed the bill by a vote of 25-3 after a markup session that saw broad agreement between its Democratic and Republican members. The negotiations over new infrastructure spending, meanwhile, appeared to face ever-narrower odds as progressive Democrats vowed to oppose an infrastructure package similar to the framework a bipartisan group of senators agreed to Wednesday.

With the fate of those talks far from certain, the surface transportation bill Cantwell introduced with her GOP counterpart on the committee, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, is taking on greater significance. In her opening remarks, Cantwell said the legislation “makes a big down payment, $78 billion, on rebuilding and revamping our nation’s critical transportation infrastructure, a key to our economic future and creating more jobs.”

After the panel approved the legislation, moving it to a vote in the full Senate, Wicker said it “continues the Commerce Committee’s strong history of working across the aisle to find solutions that benefit all Americans.”

“The legislation will grow the economy by increasing authorized funding and making improvements to our rail, freight, research and safety programs,” the committee’s top Republican said in a statement. “I thank Senator Cantwell for her dedication to these issues, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass a comprehensive infrastructure package through the Senate.”

Along with a $303.5 billion bill to fund the nation’s roads and bridges the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed unanimously in May, the Commerce Committee’s bill would reauthorize federal spending on surface transportation for the next five years. The current authorization for that spending, which Congress renewed in a one-year stopgap bill after the previous five-year bill expired, runs out at the end of September.

The Senate bill would spend roughly $36 billion on railways, $13 billion on safety efforts and $27.8 billion on grant programs for freight and various modes of transportation. It would roughly double funding for Amtrak to $19 billion over five years, amend Amtrak’s mission to emphasize the importance of train service to rural communities and preserve long-distance routes like the Empire Builder that runs through Spokane.

Another provision would remove a requirement that food and beverage service on Amtrak trains operate at a profit or at least break even. While that change could allow the railroad to restore popular dining service it has scaled back to cut costs since 2019, it drew an objection from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who said during Wednesday’s markup session, “American taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing hamburgers and hot dogs sold at a loss on Amtrak.”

Cantwell successfully urged committee members to oppose Lee’s amendment to strip that provision from the bill, saying Amtrak needs all the help it can get to draw passengers back to its trains after ridership plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other parts of the bill that could impact Washington include a $2.5 billion fund to eliminate at-grade railroad crossings, based on a bill Cantwell introduced in April, including several in Spokane Valley the senator identified as high priorities in a report she released in March. Another $4 billion could be used to replace culverts to help salmon pass under roads, a boon for Washington state, which is required by a court order to replace hundreds of culverts at a cost of more than $2 billion.

The three Republicans on the committee who voted no were Lee, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. The Senate’s surface transportation package will need to be reconciled with a larger, $547 billion bill House Democrats are gearing up to pass on a largely partisan basis. Once the House and Senate settle on legislation that can pass both chambers, it will go to President Joe Biden to be signed into law.

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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