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NPR US News

What Democrats And Republicans Want When They Talk About Infrastructure

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We have a deal. Those are President Biden's words after meeting with a bipartisan group of senators who hammered out a compromise on infrastructure spending. The package still needs to be sold to progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress, whose differences on infrastructure seem to reflect the broader partisan and cultural divide across the country. NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing in a massive transit construction project on Chicago's North Side called the Belmont Flyover. It's now a congested chokepoint where three elevated rail lines all come together. So riders on purple, red and brown line trains often have to sit and wait while other trains pass in front of them, causing significant delays. It's part of a $2 billion modernization project that is funded in part by money allocated in the last big federal infrastructure package.

AMY RYNELL: Federal dollars for projects like this are critical for them even happening at all.

SCHAPER: Amy Rynell is with Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance, which advocates for transit, biking and other active modes of transportation. And she's thrilled that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress initially proposed plans with a much greater emphasis on projects like this that address climate change inequity.

RYNELL: Three of those two lenses, transportation looks a lot different. Instead of how fast can we get a car down the road, we're looking at, how safe can everyone traveling, be it a pedestrian, cyclist or a driver?

PETER DEFAZIO: We are upending decades of status quo.

SCHAPER: House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio says his bill, which he still expects to bring to the floor for a vote next week, would shift spending priorities more than ever before.

DEFAZIO: I'm not going to do Eisenhower 8.0. Building more highways and fixing some bridges is not an answer to congestion.

SCHAPER: The House bill has a fix-it-first provision that would require state DOTs to repair or rebuild existing infrastructure before building new roads or adding highway lanes. It would also require a cost-benefit analysis to determine if transit would be a better option. But Republicans aren't having it and want to pull back on Democratic efforts to spend big on things like transit, passenger rail and bike lanes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT TOOMEY: The Biden administration plan is wildly excessive.

SCHAPER: That's Republican Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey in a committee hearing last week on the Biden plan to boost transit spending by tens of billions of dollars. He says taxpayers in his state shouldn't have to fund transit elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOOMEY: For example, a bus or a light rail station in San Francisco doesn't really do a lot for people in Pittsburgh.

SCHAPER: Jeff Davis of the nonpartisan Eno Center on Transportation (ph) says that stance reflects the country's bitter partisan divide.

JEFF DAVIS: We've gotten polarized to the point that Republicans are the rural and exurban party and Democrats are the urban and intersuburban party.

SCHAPER: But Davis says some Republicans are willing to go along with Democrats' plans to boost spending on passenger rail, especially to keep long-distance Amtrak trains running through places like North Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas. And as extreme weather takes a greater toll all across the country, he says some in the GOP appear willing to support some climate change initiatives - sort of.

DAVIS: If you use the words climate change or green, Republicans will run away. But you can fund most of the exact same projects, the exact same amount of money, but if you call it resiliency or extreme weather preparedness or whatever, Republicans will vote for it.

SCHAPER: The pending bipartisan agreement announced today is a pared back, more traditional infrastructure package, increasing funding for highways, bridges, rail and transit. But it still must pass the House and the Senate, where the extremes in both parties will certainly weigh in with their own priorities.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.