The omnibus federal spending portion of the massive coronavirus relief package contains a collection of increases and cuts for key construction programs in fiscal year 2021, compared with the previous year’s enacted level.
Many important construction or infrastructure accounts would receive boosts, but generally small ones. Big swings upward or downward are rare. One exception is military construction, which would be sliced 28% from 2020.
In all, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the price tax for the appropriations omnibus at $1.4 trillion. It is a collection of 12 separate appropriations bills, each covering one or more federal agencies or departments. [View House Appropriations Democrats section-by-section summary of omnibus spending part of the package here.]
The House late on Dec. 21 approved the 5,593-page overall legislative package, in two sections. The first passed on a 327-85 vote; the second was approved on a 359-53 vote. The Senate then cleared the legislation on a 92-6 tally.
Among US Dept. of Transportation accounts, the highway obligation ceiling would be frozen at the 2020 level of $46.4 billion. The funds would be drawn from the Highway Trust Fund.
Appropriators did add $2 billion from the general fund for highway infrastructure, including $1 billion for a bridge rehabilitation and construction program. The $2 billion represents a reduction or $166 million, or 8%, from the program's 2020.
The popular BUILD/TIGER grant, whose winners DOT selects on a competitive basis, will receive $1 billion, the same as 2020's amount.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s main infrastructure account, Airport Improvement Program construction accounts, would see its obligation limit held at $3.35 billion, the same level as in each of the last several years.
Appropriators also provided an additional $400 million above the AIP funds for airport grants, the same as in fiscal 2020.
Lawmakers provided minuscule increases for the Federal Transit Administration. The agency’s total would be set at $13 billion, up just $47 million from 2020.
Within FTA’s total, its Capital Investment Grants account, which funds new transit starts, would edge up by $36 million, or less than 1%, from 2020. Likewise the agency's separate Transit Infrastructure Grants program would receive $516 million, up just $5 million from last year.
US Dept. of Defense construction also is in line for a deep reduction. Appropriators allocated about $8.1 billion for the core military construction program, down 28% from 2020.
The Army Corps of Engineers civil works program fared better but still with only small increases. Overall, civil works would receive $7.8 billion, up $145 miilion or 2%, from last year.
Of the civil works total, the Corps construction account would get $2.7 billion, up $ 11.6 million, or less than 1%.
The Corps’ largest civil works account, operation and maintenance, is in line for a hike of about $60 million, or about 2%, to $3.9 billion.
Also worth noting is that the omnibus bill for the first time funds the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) with a $14-million appropriation. Congress authorized the program, which provides low-interest federal loans for water projects, in 2014 for the Environmental Protection Agency and for the Corps.
Yhe US Environmental Protection Agency's WIFIA program had a slow start—it did not close its first loan until 2018. But since then, EPA has announced 41 approved loans totaling $7.8 billion.
The Corps, however, had approved no WIFIA loans and until now, received no appropriations to make those loans.
Elsewhere in the legislation, the General Services Administration's federal buildings construction account would rise by $78 million, or a hefty 51%, to $230 million for 2021. That sum includes allocations to build new federal courthouses in Hartford, Conn., and Chattanooga, Tenn.
GSA’s account for federal buildings’ repairs and alterations would be slashed 31%, to $577 million, from 2020’s mark of $834 million.
The Dept. of Veterans Affairs major projects' construction program would receive $1.3 billion, up about 7% from 2020. Major projects are those whose costs exceed $20 million.
For the Dept. of Energy, appropriators provided $6.4 billion for its defense environmental cleanup program, which oversees remediation of former nuclear weapons plants around the country. That allocation represents an increase of $171 million, or 2% from 2020.
At EPA, its main water infrastructure program, state and tribal assistance grants, would receive $4.31 billion, a hike of $68 million, or about 2%.
Within the $4.3-billion total, Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs), which fund wastewater treatment infrastructure, would get $1.6 billion and Drinking Water SRFs would get $1.1 billion the same as in 2020.
But water-sector associations were pleased to see Congress include $638 million to help low-income water customers pay their bills. Five water associations said in a joint statement, "While communities and utilities work to offer customer assistance and flexibility to those in need, the scope of the public health and economic crisis requires a federal hand."
Regarding one of President Trump's top priorities, the border wall, the new omnibus, in its Homeland Security section, has $1.375 billion for "construction of a barrier system," the same amount as in the past three years. Moreover, a House Democratic aide says that those funds don't have to be obligated until fiscal 2025.
But a House Democratic aide says Democrats insisted that the bill not include language from earlier years' legislation mandating that those funds be used for the Border Patrol's "highest-priority areas for new border wall construction." The staffer adds that language "would have significantly tied President-elect Biden's hands."
He also says if the Trump administration does obligate all of the money for the wall by Jan. 21, 2021, Biden could cancel the contracts "with little loss of funding, since the contracts will have been so recently signed." He cites the government's "wide discretion to cancel contracts for convenience."