Somewhere, we imagine John Culberson is breathing deeply into a brown paper bag. We cant confirm that, however. We couldnt reach him by phone Wednesday.
But we suspect the former Republican congressman who spent much of his career scuttling Houstons ambitious transit plans vigilantly ensuring that the Train To Nowhere never veered off course to Somewhere might be a little perturbed by the hopeful signal transit just got from the U.S. Senates bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The $1 trillion package, which still faces an uphill trek through the U.S. House, offers the best hope in years that the 25-mile University Line will hop the wishful tracks of paper maps and come roaring into reality.
Its really a great opportunity to close the transit gap thats existed in our community because of some of the old disagreements, former Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia told the editorial board Wednesday.
The line, currently a $1 billion bus rapid transit project that will connect neighborhoods from the Westchase area to the Tidwell Transit Center, has been at the forefront of Houstons transit plans for nearly 20 years but was mired in red tape and political obstruction for so long that it has deviated from its original concept as a light rail line. Advocates have never doubted its potential to efficiently ferry passengers across the city with dedicated lanes and stations. If fully realized with the help of a more unified congressional delegation, it would be among the longest BRT lines in the nation.
Transit funding is just one the potential windfalls for Texas in the recently passed infrastructure bill, a truly remarkable legislative achievement given the polarization in the evenly divided Senate. The bill would provide sorely needed face-lifts and in some cases, major surgery to Texas decaying highways, bridges, and pipes while also expanding broadband and improving public transit.
The bill doesnt dedicate funding to specific projects, but overall, Texas is expected to receive between $30 billion and $40 billion based on federal funding formulas. Potentially billions more could be available in federal grants that could go toward projects as small-scale as wheelchair-accessible bus stations or as grand as the Ike Dike.
For a time, it wasnt clear if senators would pull off the compromises necessary to move the bill. But after months of haggling among Democrats and Republicans, the end result, like most big-ticket, bipartisan accomplishments in Washington, resembles a kind of Big Ugly legislation that is neither fully paid for nor fully satisfying to either side.
The bill, which sailed through on a 69-30 vote, includes $550 billion in new federal spending, but falls well short of what President Joe Biden wanted. It is missing most of Bidens clean electricity proposals and slashes water infrastructure funding in half, somewhat hobbling the pillars of the presidents climate change agenda. . Rather than funding the bill through a sensible tax hike on corporations from 21 to 28 percent still far short of the 35 percent rate before Trumps tax cuts the bill unfortunately adds $256 billion to the national deficit.
Still, the projects funded through the legislation would be a boon for Texas, including the Houston region.
When the Metropolitan Transit Authority voted to approve the University Line in June, the hope was to get the project as close to shovel-ready as possible in order to receive federal funding. The infrastructure bill would appropriate $3.3 billion over the next five years to Texas for public transportation options alone, according to White House estimates.
The bulk of Texas windfall as much as $27 billion will fund highway projects. While antithetical to the urgent goal of cutting carbon emissions, more than 19,000 miles of our highways are in poor condition, costing Texans an average of $709 per year in vehicle repair and other expenses.
But the bill would also accelerate our local economys transition toward a more sustainable future. Besides transit funding, it would send more than $400 million to support the expansion of an electric vehicle charging network, with up to $2.5 billion more available through grants. Texas would also receive $3 billion to improve pipes and the delivery of clean drinking water. And Texas could benefit from the bills $3.5 billion investment in weatherizing energy grids across the country. Millions of Texans who sat shivering in their dark living rooms during last winters freeze will undoubtedly welcome that improvement.
Critically, the bill would provide at least $100 million for broadband access in a state where 14 percent of households dont have an internet subscription and 4 percent of Texans have no broadband infrastructure at all.
Yet despite the bills benefits, and the bipartisan agreement on the shoddy state of Texas infrastructure, both Texas senators voted against the legislation. Their reasons were tinged with hypocrisy. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz voiced concerns over the massive amount of federal spending the bill would add to the national debt, which stands at $28 trillion. But they apparently had no problem voting for a massive tax cut in 2017 that disproportionately benefited the wealthy and added $2 trillion to the deficit nearly eight times what the infrastructure bill would add.
Were all for fiscal responsibility, but we also like consistency.
But one reason Cornyn opposed the legislation does have some merit: the bills $100 billion bailout of the Highway Trust Fund, a move that simply lets Congress procrastinate another five years on addressing the funds insolvency. In 2020 alone, the fund paid out roughly $15 billion more than it took in and faces a projected $195 billion deficit over the next decade.
Cornyn even expressed his willingness to raise the gasoline tax for heavy trucks, which do the most damage to roads. The gas tax, a major source of funding for highways and transit, hasnt been raised since 1993 one reason, along with increasing fuel efficiency, that the highway fund cant stay afloat. Cornyns gutsy move didnt win him any points with truckers, but we applaud the senators creativity and urge the House to consider the idea.
Bottom line: this imperfect bill presents a rare opportunity to rebuild the nations crumbling infrastructure. If it gets to Bidens desk, there will surely be an arms race among politicians and interest groups across Texas to fund bold, transformative ideas.
No need to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of projects in the pipeline just waiting some for decades for this moment of federal investment. The Texas delegation in the House should fight for the provisions that bring home dollars to the Lone Star State and especially Houston. And when the bill passes, our state and region should be ready with shovels in the ground.
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