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The race to replace Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) as House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman is heating up with news of his retirement at year’s end, while also giving some hope his move will free him to push through a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Shuster was already term-limited as chairman of the panel, but announced Jan. 2 that he would retire from Congress at the end of 2018.
“Rather than focusing on a re-election campaign, I thought it wiser to spend my last year as Chairman focusing 100% on working with President Trump and my Republican and Democratic colleagues in both Chambers to pass a much needed infrastructure bill to rebuild America,” Shuster said in a statement.
His fellow committee Republicans were quick to call him a friend and praise him as an effective leader, while also making it known that they would like to take his place. The two confirmed candidates are Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.).
Meanwhile, industry groups and Shuster’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), hope that Shuster will pour himself into a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“This is very good for infrastructure to see him giving his last year to the effort,” Patty Doersch, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs and an expert on transportation policy, told Bloomberg Government in an interview.
Denham and Graves are both subcommittee chairmen under Shuster.
Graves has been making his case to colleagues and evaluating his priorities, including a fix to the highway trust fund which will go insolvent during the next chairman’s tenure, absent a fix, he told Bloomberg Government in a December interview.
“I look forward to working with [Shuster] and President Trump on an infrastructure bill before his last day of work as a United States Congressman,” Graves said about Shuster in a Jan. 2 statement.
Graves supported Shuster in his most recent push to spin off air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration. As head of the general aviation caucus and a pilot himself, Graves’s support was considered key to assuaging concerns about a spinoff’s effect on the general aviation community. That his support didn’t win over the wider GA community writ large may not matter to his chances as much as his public support for Shuster’s effort, many industry lobbyists suggest.
Denham referenced the FAA bill, which includes Shuster’s air traffic spinoff, in his statement upon Shuster’s retirement announcement.
“The House T&I Committee has thrived under his leadership, and the nation’s infrastructure is better for it. I will be supporting him in his final push to get an infrastructure bill as well as FAA reform across the finish line this year,” he said.
It is possible that without an election to worry about Shuster will be able to be even more focused on infrastructure, Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said in an interview with Bloomberg Government.
“I want to take him at his word that this really will free up the time for him to devote exclusively to pushing an infrastructure initiative forward,” Wright said. “I know he’s quite serious about getting something done this year.”
DeFazio pointed to the FAST Act, the first long-term funding bill for surface transportation in a decade when it passed in 2015, as proof that bipartisan work on infrastructure is possible even in a hyper-partisan Congress, he said in a statement.
“The FAST Act was a good first step, but much more needs to be done to fix our crumbling infrastructure including highways, transit, ports, airports and rail systems. I thank Bill for his friendship, his service, and I look forward to continuing to work with him over the next year on critical issues before the committee,” DeFazio said.
Doersch, who worked for Shuster’s father Bud on the committee, said the younger Shuster’s decision could make the difference in getting a fix for the highway trust fund.
One possible fix certain to concern some Republicans is an increase in the gas tax, which Shuster described as a user fee consistent with conservative principles in a December interview with Bloomberg Government.
A fix to the highway trust fund “would be the best legacy he could leave,” Doersch said.
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