House Energy and Commerce Examines Its Own Infrastructure Bill

May 24, 2019

“Infrastructure” means much more than just the public works that support transportation, and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a full committee hearing on the 2019 version of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act (LIFT) – authorizing $122 billion in funding for infrastructure programs under that panel’s very broad jurisdiction – on May 22. The LIFT act is a robust infrastructure investment package, addressing needs from action to combat climate change, expanding access to broadband internet, drinking water infrastructure, and health infrastructure. Introduced by full committee chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the legislation will use strategic investments under those themes to strengthen the economy and create a good paying jobs.

The committee invited six expert witnesses: Mignon Clyburn of MLC Strategies (formerly a Federal Communications Commissioner); John Auerbach, President & CEO of Trust for America’s Health; Jessica Eckdish, Legislative Director of the BlueGreen Alliance; Brian Wahler, Mayor of Piscataway, NJ and representing the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Daniel Lyons0 of the American Enterprise Institute; and Christopher Guith, Acting President of the Global Energy Institute for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The witnesses span the gamut of expertise over the provisions in the LIFT Act and represent a diverse set of views through the ideological spectrum as well.

In Pallone’s opening statement, he stressed the urgency of addressing the provisions in the LIFT Act, particularly the rural and urban deserts of broadband internet access and investing in a healthy electric vehicle (EV) charging network and clean energy grid as a means of combating climate change. Echoing the first part of his opening statement, expanding broadband access was the dominant theme of most of the testimony and questioning. While there was broad agreement between legislators and the witnesses on the necessity of expanding access, disagreement was present in the data transfer rate that the network should aim for. Lyons advocated for, in his opinion, a more economic 25 megabit per second (Mbps) and then investing in higher speeds when they become needed. Clyburn disagreed, suggesting that 100 Mbps would be the best option and likely the most economical in the long run because slower broadband infrastructure would be outdated sooner rather than later.

On the transportation front, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) sought clarification on how to address the slow adoption of alternative fuel vehicles for replacing diesel engines. Because of the longer life span of diesel engines, the transition is likely to be slower than petrol based vehicles. Eckdish suggested that reauthorizing the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) and an expansion of EV infrastructure, especially charging stations. Eckdish also suggested that “clean” infrastructure can induce EV vehicle and infrastructure adoption. Matsui used her time to chastise the Trump administration for rolling back the Obama Administrations fuel economy standards and stressed that increased fuel economy and alternative fuels are critical to combating climate change and making healthy communities. The congresswoman backed expanding provisions in the LIFT act to invest more in EV charging and EV purchasing subsidies.

Rep. Matsui then directed her questioning to Wahler, inquiring on what he perceived as the largest abrriers to widespread adoption of EVs today and what should be done to alleviate those roadblocks. Wahler suggested that charging infrastructure is a main concern and feels that a lack of partnership at the federal level has caused many towns and cities to “step up to plate”. Wahler cited local changes to zoning laws that require the installation of EV charging station in all new large residential or commercial developments. Wahler commended the Representatives home state of California for being an excellent example of the initiatives he suggested but lamented that they are the outlier and not the norm.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) continued the transportation related questioning, focusing on transportation major role in climate change and the ability of zero emission vehicle infrastructure to spur economic vitality. Eckdish believes that if zero emission vehicle infrastructure is done the right way, by modernizing the electrical grid thus facilitating EV vehicle and infrastructure adoption, the U.S. can harness the economic benefits of local manufacture of components and vehicles, making the U.S. leaders in EV standards and technology. Eckdish agreed with Tonko that these strategic investments would make the U.S. economy more competitive while reducing negative environmental burdens such as air pollution.

Whaler expanded upon Eckdish’s testimony be reiterating the need for federal resources to hasten local government expansion of EV charging infrastructure. He provided an anecdote on the effect that installed charging infrastructure can have, saying after charging stations have been installed the most often question asked quickly changed from “where am I going to charge” to “how much are you going to charge me to charge”. Tonko took this opportunity to then advocate for a separate, more comprehensive, clean transportation bill on top of the LIFT Act. This was a callback to his opening statement on the lack of clean transportation options in the U.S., admonishing the paltry fleet of 300 electric buses in the U.S. compared to China’s 421,000.

The focus on the ability of clean transportation infrastructure to incite job growth and maximize local benefits was on full display towards the end of the hearing when Rep.Tony Cardenas (D-CA) was given the floor. He focused his questioning on the inclusion of the Clean Commute for Kids Act, which directs money to replace old diesel fueled buses to other sources. Eckdish agreed on the potential to reduce air pollution through these actions and if the new vehicles are procured and manufactured domestically, would localize economic production and further expand the pool of green jobs.

The LIFT Act is still being revised in committee. There seems to be bipartisan agreement on the necessity of many of the provisions in the bill, but there is likely to be conflict further on when funding specifics are addressed (specifically, how to pay for the spending authorized by the bill).

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