How Biden’s Infrastructure Victory Fails in a Large Estate

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Dream meets reality

In addition to getting the 10 Republican votes required to pass an infrastructure bill through the Senate, Biden and the Democratic leaders had to rally their own party to ensure the two bills could pass together, including including the support of two Senate kingmakers: Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). And, the reconciliation bill is on the verge of halving its previous size and without the centerpiece of its climate initiatives, a clean electricity program that would have spurred utilities to switch from fossil fuels to renewables.

The reconciliation package was supposed to be the sugar that lowered infrastructure bills for progressives and greens, but the gutting of its climate package makes it a more bitter pill to swallow. In particular, the Greens resented the emphasis on road building in the infrastructure bill, in the absence of guardrails that would force a focus on repair rather than expansion.

Beth Osborne, Director of Transportation and the safe streets advocacy group Transportation for America, accused Congress of “doubling down on a dinosaur from a federal transportation program” that it says has produced a dangerous, inequitable and unsustainable transportation system.

But others in the transportation industry see a lot to like in the infrastructure bill, even if it won’t be the watershed moment to mitigate the climate change many had hoped for.

“It will touch every community,” said Adie Tomer, who heads the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at Brookings. “It’s going to be bigger than the New Deal.”

What’s in the invoice

The infrastructure bill allocates $ 110 billion in new funding for roads and bridges, the vast majority of which will go through long-established formulas that are channeled to state transportation departments. It’s energized states are in desperate need of the money, but sustainability advocates see it as a net loss, as states will spend those dollars according to their own goals. Some states like California have built carbon emissions reductions into their plans, but other states might just use them to build more roads, for example.

The infrastructure bill also lacks any requirement that would prioritize repairing things before building new ones. The surface transportation bill passed by the House would have prioritized this type of “fix first” and would also have required states to measure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But the House bill was sidelined in favor of the more bipartisan version of the Senate over the summer.

However, some of these priorities have figured in the current reconciliation bill, HR 5376 (117). A community climate incentive subsidy program, for example, will force states to take action to reduce carbon emissions and encourage cities to do the same.

And a silver lining for those who wanted states to prioritize maintaining existing infrastructure is the $ 37 billion Bridge Repair Program, a safety-critical initiative to address a problem that has long been overlooked. even as the main bridges in Cincinnati and Memphis were forced to close for months due to safety concerns related to their decrepitude.

The infrastructure bill promises $ 7.5 billion for the construction of electric vehicle charging stations, which will be made possible by the tax credits from the reconciliation bill and overshadowed by the $ 34 billion that disposes this room for electrification. The bill creates new programs for transit connections to affordable housing, neighborhood equity and reducing carbon emissions, and invests in low-emission aviation fuels.

Supercharged Amtrak

The reconciliation bill would also allocate $ 10 billion each for public transit and high-speed rail, supplementing already significant amounts for modes included in the infrastructure bill. Amtrak would get $ 66 billion in new money, which could allow the rail line to expand its existing service not only along the popular Northeast Corridor, but also in Colorado and the Midwest.

But Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group for passenger rail transport, said that while welcome, it will not be enough to create true transformation in the country’s passenger rail system.

The bill could allow Amtrak to increase its frequency and reliability on its network, but Jeans-Gail said that would not be enough to start “starting something from scratch”, such as new service corridors. . He noted that much of the money could be spent on basic maintenance needs such as modernizing the tracks, padding the cars and ventilating the station. It will also fund studies and exercises to identify corridors which will then require even more funding to be carried out, he said.

“I think a lot of what we’re going to fund [with the infrastructure package] is the environmental review, the route analysis, the development of a national concrete plan, the design and the start of construction of the corridors, ”said Jeans-Gail. “And there’s got to be this next package to bring home a lot of this planning work, a lot of this environmental work, a lot of this design work.

He noted that given “these goals we still need to decarbonize the transport sector and get as many people as possible into public transport … we were hoping for more”.

An additional $ 10 billion for rail – high-speed rail, in particular – is also included in the reconciliation bill, but the country’s switch to high-speed rail will likely take orders of magnitude larger. .

Latency

Despite the large numbers, it could take months, if not years, to start seeing shovels in the ground, as regulators keen to avoid comparisons to former President Barack Obama’s stimulus package focus on good projects rather than immediate projects. The current labor shortage, exacerbating long-standing labor problems in the construction trades, could also slow the pace of construction and make projects more expensive, experts warn.

“This is a long-term investment,” said Sarah Kline, a transportation consultant who previously, he worked on the Senate Banking Committee, for the Washington, DC Transit Agency, and for Transportation for America. “It will take time for these funds to reach the streets. “

Not only workers and engineers, but each level of government will have to expand its ranks to oversee the massive flow of funds and the implementation of projects.

“There are only a limited number of people working in state DOTs at the moment, and there are only a limited number of people working in transit agencies,” he said. she declared. “They’re going to have to hire more people to manage these contracts and design these projects. This is where the economic benefit comes in.

“But it’s going to take a while,” she warned.

There could also be supply chain issues as demand for materials and equipment increases from a finite number of suppliers – especially those suppliers who meet Buy America’s requirements – but Tomer, of Brookings, has said demand is just another part of the economic benefit.

“This bill stimulates enough demand that we can expect manufacturers in the transportation sector to respond in a sustainable manner,” he said. “And by sustainable means I mean potentially expanding their production, including investments in facilities, as well as hiring skilled labor – with the caveat of, if they can. to find.”


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