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Eno Transportation Weekly

“Green New Deal” Outline Introduced in House, Senate

February 8, 2019

Yesterday, progressive Members of Congress introduced a non-binding resolution calling on Congress to adopt a “Green New Deal.”

The resolution (text here) was introduced in the House as H. Res. 109 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) with 67 cosponsors and was introduced in the Senate as S. Res. 59 by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) with 11 cosponsors, half of whom appear to be seeking the Democratic nomination for President in 2020.

The resolution sets forth five overarching goals, of which one is “to invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century,” which is pretty innocuous. It then calls for a ten-year strategy to achieve those goals, and as part of that strategy, the resolution calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States, including— (i) by eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible; (ii) by guaranteeing universal access to clean water; (iii) by reducing the risks posed by climate impacts; and (iv) by ensuring that any infrastructure bill considered by Congress addresses climate change…” Again, this syncs up with what traditional Democratic demands have been in recent years.

When it gets down to the transportation-specific strategy, the resolution calls for:

overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in— (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transit; and (iii) high-speed rail…”

Again, the resolution itself limits itself to proposals that are “technologically feasible,” and the ZEV infrastructure and mass transit funding increase provisions are standard Democratic stuff. (As is lip service to high speed rail, but if funding is constrained, Democrats almost always prioritize funding increases for mass transit well ahead of HSR.)

However…

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s office also gave a written FAQ document explaining the plan to NPR (read it here) which goes a lot further than the text of the resolution itself and which dispenses with the “technologically feasible” caveat in many areas.

The FAQ document says that the transportation goals are to “Totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle.”

Studies have shown that, if costs were kept under control, high-speed rail could thrive between high-population city-pairs about 400-500 miles apart, too far to drive easily but where flying is not as efficient. But no one, anywhere, has ever done a study alleging that transcontinental HSR in the United States would be technologically feasible. (And, as Sen. Maize Hirono (D-HI) told a reporter yesterday, there are some serious issues involved in extending high-speed rail to Hawaii.

Likewise, the goal of replacing every combustion-engine vehicle strains the bounds of technological feasibility.

And when justifying the fact that the GND intentionally lacks any kind of “pay-for” and will be some combination of on-budget deficit spending and off-budget Federal Reserve support, the FAQ document contains this humdinger: “If Eisenhower wanted to build the interstate highway system today, people would ask how we’d pay for it.”

In terms of sheer ahistoricity, this is right up there with the immortal question, “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” In point of fact, Eisenhower’s original plan (the Clay Commission report in January 1955) called for the creation of an off-budget federal corporation to issue bonds and borrow the money necessary to build the Interstate system. Congress refused to consider this and insisted on an explicit federal pay-for, but the original revenue mix was rejected by the House later in 1955, and they had to come back in 1956 to dedicate the tax increases to a special trust fund, and put the cash flow of the program explicitly on a pay-as-you-go basis, to get the 1956 Interstate law passed.

The FAQ document allowed Republican opponents of the plan to pounce on its call for “Economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work” (emphasis added), which was not in the resolution itself, and the FAQ document’s de facto call for the abolition of domestic civil aviation likewise caught a lot of people by surprise and stepped all over the messaging on the transportation end. (Again, the call to end aviation was not in the resolution itself.)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sounded distinctly unenthusiastic about the GND when talking to reporters this week, saying “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”

No one expects Green New Deal proposals to be enacted into law this year, with a Republican Senate and with Donald Trump in the White House. The real question is: will Democrats who have signed onto the Green New Deal support transportation and infrastructure legislation that may be inconsistent with the GND?

If Congress and the President are able to enact surface transportation reauthorization in this Congress, it will have to be a bipartisan bill, which generally means incremental change, not revolutionary change. And since the federal-aid highway program is uniquely carbon-centric (see this recent explainer), the surface bill may lock in continued reliance on fossil fuels for five years or more. The number of House Democrats who voted “no” on the last three surface transportation laws (SAFETEA-LU, MAP-21, and the FAST Act) is precisely zero – but any bill that President Trump is willing to sign into law might test that unanimity.

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