Key Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) arrives to the Capitol for a series of votes on May 27
Greg Nash

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close ally of President Biden, said Friday he would support a bipartisan infrastructure package even if negotiators drop a proposal to significantly increase funding for public transit, a top Democratic priority.

Coons says he would be OK with dropping the controversial public transit provisions from the bipartisan package because there would be a chance to add more funding for transit in a larger reconciliation package that Democrats plan to move with a simple-majority vote as part of the budget process later this year.

Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash whether he would support the bipartisan package without the contentious increase for public transit, Coons replied, “I would.”

“This is a bold and ambitious infrastructure investment. The $579 billion in new spending across broadband and roads, rail and airports and seaports would be a generational investment. This would be the largest investment in infrastructure we’ve done in our lifetimes, and I think it will create great high-paying, high-skill jobs,” Coons said.

Coons said public transit funding could be increased later this year through the reconciliation package, which is projected to cost $3.5 trillion.

“Frankly because we are also going to be a large reconciliation bill there will a second opportunity for us later this year to invest in transit,” he said. “Transit is something we all need across this country but particularly in communities like here in the Philadelphia suburbs where it’s how people to connect to their employment every day.”

Dropping the proposed $48.5 billion increase for transit from the bipartisan framework that Republican and Democratic negotiators agreed to last month, however, will anger many Democrats.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who represents commuters in the New Jersey suburbs of Manhattan, vowed to oppose the legislation if it dropped the transit spending.

“Any bipartisan infrastructure deal must not just include transit, but properly prioritize our transit systems as it would our roads and highways. Robust transit service is vital to families and workers. A bill that fails to adequately include transit will not have my support,” he tweeted on Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) would also have a hard time accepting a hard infrastructure package that didn’t include major increases for public transit, especially after the remnants of Hurricane Elsa flooded out New York City’s subways. Searing images of flooded subway stations and the East River overflowing onto FDR Drive showed how much help New York’s infrastructure needs.

It appeared the bipartisan group had largely agreed on a massive increase for transit funding but their proposal drew a strong objection from Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit.

Toomey argues the bipartisan proposal as earlier drafted would significantly skew the traditional ratio of highway to transit spending dramatically in favor of transit. He has also pointed out that local governments are sitting on an estimated $40 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief money for transit systems.

At the other end of the spectrum is Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has dismissed Toomey’s proposal for transit funding as “underwhelming” and isn’t inclined to hold a committee markup on the issue. He says he wants the bipartisan group to hash out a deal without delay or interference from the Banking panel.

Coons acknowledge Friday that the two sides remain at loggerheads.

“There was a still a significant gap between Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Toomey of Pennsylvania, that’s the chair and the ranking of the relevant committee, as I left Washington yesterday afternoon,” Coons told CNN.

The dispute over transit funding is one of several issues holding up a final deal on infrastructure spending.
Negotiators are still wrestling over how to administer an expansion of broadband internet excess, how much money from previously enacted pandemic relief to repurpose for infrastructure, and over how extensively to implement Davis-Bacon Act requirements on wages paid for infrastructure-related projects. 
The lead GOP negotiator, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on Thursday suggested dropping the controversial transit provision altogether.
Tags Adam Kinzinger Bob Menendez Charles Schumer Chris Coons Dana Bash Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden Pat Toomey Public Transit Rob Portman Sherrod Brown Transportation
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