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Advocates optimistic Biden infrastructure plan is a step toward sustainability

Advocates optimistic Biden infrastructure plan is a step toward sustainability
© Greg Nash

Environmental advocates are hopeful that parts of the White House’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package’s sustainability measures can gain traction with lawmakers in Congress despite GOP claims that they fall outside the definition of infrastructure.

Advocates have long called expansion of rail infrastructure a major opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of transportation and improve its sustainability.

Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce told The Hill the organization is particularly pleased with the legislation’s provisions on rail transportation.

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The $2.25 trillion plan includes $85 billion to modernize public transit, including updating and replacing rail cars, station repairs and railway expansion. Another $80 billion would address Amtrak’s repair backlog and increase the cities connected by Amtrak routes along the rail system’s northeastern corridor.

Biden is the “best salesman for building out a transportation infrastructure,” Pierce said. “Now might be that moment — now we might see bold investments in rail as an option and an option to take freight off the roads.”

“The political stars are aligned around high-speed rail in a way they weren’t” under the Obama administration, added Adam Beitman, the Sierra Club’s deputy national press secretary.

“You’ve got Biden who is Mr. Rail, you’ve got [Pete] Buttigieg at Transportation doing his thing, you’ve got [Senate Majority Leader Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] doing his thing being at the heart of the Acela [corridor],” Beitman added.

Another sustainability aspect of the legislation, electrical grid modernization, has been a hot topic in recent months after extreme winter weather knocked out Texas’s self-contained electrical grid. The White House plan includes $100 billion to upgrade electrical grids and would create a Grid Deployment Authority under the umbrella of the Energy Department.

Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, told The Hill that the energy crisis in Texas forced the federal government to attend to what he said was an outdated grid.

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“The need to accelerate the ongoing energy transition — along with recent extreme climate-related weather events in Texas and California — have refocused federal attention on updating and expanding our antiquated and balkanized grid,” Wetstone said.

“The solution is a U.S. macro grid capable of connecting across seams and delivering the abundant, affordable and reliable clean energy Americans want and deserve,” he said.

Republicans have accused the White House of using the package as a vehicle for unrelated agenda items, with the Republican National Committee (RNC) calling it “another multitrillion-dollar far-left wish list” with “only 7 percent of the bill’s spending … for what Americans traditionally think of as infrastructure.”

The RNC’s definition of the term encompassed only the package’s highway, road, waterway and airport funding, but excluded its provisions on rail and public transit.

Biden’s plan would also include a corporate tax increase from 21 percent to 28 percent to fund the plan, a 7 percent raise from the GOP 2017 tax plan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' McConnell alma mater criticizes him for 1619 comments McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' MORE (R-Ky.) panned the administration’s proposal, specifically pointing to the tax rate increase in late March.

"This proposal appears to use 'infrastructure' as a Trojan horse for the largest set of tax hikes in a generation. ... Democrats keep trying to use important issues as smokescreens for unrelated agendas," he said.

However, Wetstone said there may be more appetite for specific improvements to sustainability within the electrical grid in Congress.

“We think a stable, predictable and long-term clean energy tax platform, along with significant progress on forward-looking transmission policy, has a good chance of enactment this Congress,” he said. “Additional policies like a federal clean energy standard are also very much a part of the conversation.”

Ben Beachy, director of the Sierra Club's Living Economy program, said the package’s provisions on retrofitting buildings was also a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to achieving sustainability. The plan calls for retrofitting 2 million residential and commercial buildings.

“Buildings are a big part of this plan, we need to simultaneously upgrade our buildings to ensure they are healthy so as to create healthy and prosperous living environments while cutting climate pollution,” Beachy told The Hill. 

Beachy added that the package’s sustainability aspects are inextricable from those that address issues like environmental justice or pollution.

“You really can’t separate out the sustainability goals from health and equity goals,” he said.