House Democrats tout infrastructure benefits, but Republicans wary

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

There are countless ways that a $1.5 trillion federal infrastructure package drafted by U.S. House Democrats would affect Tennessee if it ever becomes law, but U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper said there’s one big change residents in his Nashville-area district would see quickly: fewer freight trains causing big traffic jams on major roads.

Right now, idle trains can block thoroughfares for an hour or more, sometimes during rush hour, Cooper said. People who live in South Nashville neighborhoods near CSX’s Radnor Yard can even be blocked out of their neighborhood by stalled trains.

Rep. Jim Cooper
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But the proposal that the U.S. House is expected to vote on before July 4th would forbid freight railroads from blocking those grade crossings for more than 10 minutes. It would be up to the federal transportation department to determine penalties and enforce the new law. The bill also includes $2.5 billion in new spending to improve railroad crossings.

“Just because your train is bigger than my car, that doesn’t mean you have a right to keep me from work,” Cooper said. “Both are important to keep the economy strong.”

House Democrats are hoping that they can finally pass long-discussed legislation to improve the country’s infrastructure. They are casting it as a form of economic stimulus that can help workers who are out of a job because of the pandemic-induced recession.

But there’s still a long road ahead before any such legislation reaches the president’s desk.

Many of the provisions in the package would normally find their way into separate bills, but Democrats have chosen to work most of them simultaneously into one massive package. (The exception is a bill that covers water infrastructure, like river levees and municipal wastewater facilities. The House will take that measure up separately, at the end of July.)

Among the provisions they are pushing is a new law to provide for road and transit funding, because the current surface transportation funding law is set to expire later this year. They are looking at ways to build out broadband internet service in rural areas. And they are proposing spending more to improve school buildings, upgrade hospitals, build affordable housing and encourage the development of clean energy.

The ambitious agenda hasn’t gone over well with House Republicans, who complain they have been shut out of the process.

“Unfortunately the infrastructure bill put forth by the Democrats is a partisan bill that was created with little input from their Republican colleagues,” said Justine Sanders, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican who represents Chattanooga and eastern Tennessee.

Fleischmann, she continued in a statement, “has continually fought for the priorities of East Tennesseans including securing funding for the Chickamauga Lock, trucking, rural broadband and water projects. He looks forward to working with his colleagues on the Appropriations Committee this month to produce real, bipartisan legislation.”

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Cooper, one of two Tennessee Democrats in the U.S. House, said Republican objections were “crocodile tears.”

“When you talk to Republicans privately,” he said, “they’re mainly mad at [President Donald] Trump for not having made good on his promises on infrastructure.”

The House legislation faces long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate. The senators are working on two major infrastructure-related bills that have attracted bipartisan support: one on water infrastructure, and another to keep money flowing to surface transportation projects like roads and transit. Both measures are notably less ambitious than the House’s infrastructure package.

Elizabeth Gregory, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said one of Blackburn’s top infrastructure priorities is improving broadband access across the state. The senator, Gregory noted, helped secure an $11.2 million grant to install 143 miles of fiber optic cable along Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.

Trump has repeatedly called for a national infrastructure building program, promising to spend as much as $2 trillion over a decade on the effort. But his administration has offered few details about what he would like to see in the bill or how to pay for it.

Disagreements over how to pay for major infrastructure improvements have been the biggest reason why Congress has not been able to pass major infrastructure legislation over the last decade. Unlike its approach to many programs, Congress has tried to make most infrastructure programs pay for themselves through user fees and fuel taxes.

  During emergency times, the rules don't apply. You've got to keep the economy going. We don't want needless deaths. We don't want an economic depression.   – U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper

Republicans have been particularly wary of raising fuel taxes or other taxes to pay for the improvements. When Congress has needed to keep money flowing for highways and transit agencies, it has repeatedly diverted money in the federal budget that had been designated for other purposes.

Cooper, the Nashville Democrat, said the actions Congress has taken in the last several months show that the argument over funding infrastructure isn’t as potent as it was before. House Democrats are floating the idea of borrowing money to pay for increases in infrastructure spending.

“This is the silver lining of the COVID cloud,” Cooper said. “As we spent $3.5 trillion dollars on COVID relief, people realize, ‘Hey, while we’re fixing this, why don’t we fix this other problem that we’ve had way longer than COVID?’”

Cooper also pointed out that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, recently passed legislation to reduce the backlog of deferred maintenance at national parks by half, but did it without adding any new revenue to pay for it.

Cooper has expressed concerns about the size of the national debt throughout his career, but he said this is not the time to worry about deficit spending. “During emergency times, the rules don’t apply. You’ve got to keep the economy going, because we do want to help,” he said. “We don’t want needless deaths. We don’t want an economic depression.”

During the Great Depression, Cooper argued, the federal government did too little to reinvigorate the economy. The U.S. economy only recovered with the beginning of World War II. “It shouldn’t take a war to stimulate the economy,” Cooper said. “We can have a war on our weak bridges, our bad roads and our inefficient transit.”