Virginians could see more frequent passenger rail service, a widened Interstate 64 between Richmond and Newport News, affordable high-speed internet service in more communities and new bridges to replace the hundreds in disrepair, including the Mayo Bridge across the James River.
But before federal money starts pouring into Virginia from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that the U.S. Senate approved on Tuesday, that train has to stop in the House of Representatives, where it could get hitched to a much bigger budget package carrying up to $3.5 trillion in freight for Democrats.
“I continue to believe that this is a starting point,” said Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, who backs the strategy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to withhold House action on the infrastructure deal until the Senate passes a spending package on other priorities under a budget reconciliation process begun this week.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., one of the principal architects of the bipartisan package that passed the Senate by a 69-30 vote, acknowledged that the debate is just beginning on other spending priorities, including freeing Virginia to use unspent federal emergency aid to replace outdated public school buildings across the state.
But Warner called the bipartisan agreement “the biggest infrastructure investment in our lifetimes, and boy, you know, we need it.”
“One thing I am sure of is that one way or another, this infrastructure bill will become law ... It will be just a matter of timing,” he said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday.
Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the infrastructure package would provide $7 billion for highways and $537 million for bridge repairs in Virginia over five years.
They said it would reauthorize federal funding for the Washington Metro system, considered critical to the Northern Virginia and state economy, and spend $1.2 billion over five years on public transportation in Virginia.
A $66 billion investment in passenger rail includes money for construction of a new railroad bridge across the Potomac River that would unlock opportunities for freight and passenger service in Virginia — including almost hourly service between Richmond and Washington within a decade.
The package includes money for Virginia ports, airports, projects to protect the coast from rising sea levels, a safer electric power grid and electric charging stations for vehicles, and at least $100 million to make high-speed internet service accessible and affordable.
Warner said the new commitment by Gov. Ralph Northam and the General Assembly to spend more than $700 million in federal aid in the American Rescue Plan Act on expanding broadband networks “will put Virginia ahead of the pack.”
The package does not include money for replacing old school buildings, but he said he is talking with Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, about including provisions in the coming budget package to allow state and local governments to use unspent federal aid for school modernization and replacement.
He credited the assembly for leaving $1.1 billion in rescue plan funds uncommitted during the special session that ended on Tuesday.
“I do applaud the General Assembly for not spending it all,” Warner said.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, who represents parts of Chesterfield and Henrico counties in a political swing district that extends to the Blue Ridge Mountains, wants Congress to express the infrastructure package to the White House for President Joe Biden to sign.
“We should move as quickly as possible to send this legislation to President Biden’s desk,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.
Spanberger was even more forceful in a statement by the Blue Dog Coalition that she and four other congressional Democrats chair. “Now that the Senate has done its job, we reiterate our call for House leadership to follow suit and bring the bipartisan infrastructure legislation to the House floor for a vote as a standalone bill as quickly as possible,” they said.
But Warner came under pressure on Tuesday from a coalition of left-leaning groups in Virginia, who released a poll that claims broad public support for Biden’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations to pay for priorities that didn’t make it into the infrastructure package. Those priorities include universal child care, paid sick leave, free community college, expanded Medicare benefits and measures to combat climate change.
“Now is the time to unrig the tax system and rebuild our economy so that everyone has a meaningful change to prosper, care for their families and secure the future for coming generations,” said the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and 36 other organizations, including the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia League for Conservation Voters.
Warner acknowledged the need to address tax fairness, but he said his role has been to find consensus on new spending and how to pay for it.
“It’s been a little bit of yin and yang,” he said. “In the infrastructure group, I kept trying to maybe increase the number and around the Democrats’ budget resolution, I kept trying to bring the number down.”
“I’m not sure all of the aspirations that are laid out in the budget resolution are going to be able to be met,” Warner said, “but I think it’s worthwhile to have a fulsome debate on that.”