After a long, halting trek, the largest federal infrastructure bill in recent memory has pushed past a critical legislative milepost, with the US Senate’s approval of a $1-trillion measure that would provide major funding infusions for a wide range of public works categories including highways, bridges, water, the electric grid and broadband.
The package, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, won Senate passage Aug. 10 on a strong bipartisan 69-30 vote. Nineteen Republicans joined Democrats in voting for it.
The bill next goes to the House, where the outlook and the timing for floor action are unclear.
Dave Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association president and CEO, cautions, “The Senate vote is a much-needed step, but not the finish line.”
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (Del.), the Democrats’ floor manager for the bill, said, “It’s the largest long-term investment in America’s infrastructure in almost a century.”
Infrastructure funding has been a priority for President Joe Biden, going back to his 2020 presidential campaign. Interest perked up in late March, when Biden unveiled a $2-trillion framework. [View ENR 3/31/2021 story on Biden's announcement here.]
The Senate bill is the result of long negotiations over the past several months involving various Senate Republicans—who balked at Biden’s spending proposals—and Democrats. Unsurprisingly, the bill’s funding levels are well below those in the March proposal.
But Biden, a veteran of past Senate negotiations, was upbeat after the vote. Speaking at a press conference, he said, “After years and years and years of Infrastructure Week, we’re on the cusp of an infrastructure decade.”
Breaking Down the 'New Money'
Of the bill’s estimated $1-trillion total, about $550 billion is increased funding over current baseline levels across infrastructure categories.
Of that new money, highways, bridges and other major transportation projects would receive the largest share, about $110 billion. Passenger and freight rail would get $66 billion, transit would receive $39 billion, airports $25 billion and port and inland waterways projects would get $17 billion.
Among non-transportation categories, water infrastructure, including aid for drinking-water and wastewater-treatment projects, would be allotted $55 billion, and improvements to the electric grid would gain $73 billion.
The proposal also has an emphasis on addressing the effects of climate change, including $46 billion to increase projects’ resilience against storms, wildfires and other natural disasters.
Highway, Transit, Water Authorizations, Too
The measure also enfolds important five-year reauthorizations for highway, transit and US Environmental Protection Agency water programs. The highway and water bill had cleared the Environment and Public Works Committee earlier this year. The EPA water bill, totaling $35 billion, was approved by the full Senate earlier as well, and is wrapped into the total package approved Aug. 10.
Noting the hefty funding for EPA water and broadband, National Utility Contractors Association CEO Doug Carlson said in a statement, “This bill is a big win for NUCA members.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on Environment and Public Works, said the highway authorization totals $303 billion, a 35% increase over the last multiyear highway bill, the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president for advocacy, said in an interview the $303 billion would provide “significantly increased investments in highways, roads and bridges, so naturally we’re elated about that.”
A separate provision would bolster the struggling Highway Trust Fund by transferring $118 billion from the general fund. Of that, the trust fund's highways account would receive $90 billion and its transit account would get the other $28 billion.
Industry officials also highlighted the reauthorizations' long time span. Sean O'Neill, Portland Cement Association senior vice president for government affairs, said in an interview that the long time span provides “the certainty that comes with the investments that will be made in all facets of infrastructure over the next several years.”
More broadly, Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies senior vice president for advocacy, said, “This is going to be huge for the industry.”
Hall said in an interview, “Having a predictable, stable, growing five-year surface transportation program—coupled with major increases in investments in water and other areas of the built environment—is really going to open a lot of opportunities for the industry to design innovative solutions to areas related to resilience and climate change and all of the things that this seeks to address.”
House's Turn Is Next
Attention has quickly shifted to the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she wants to take up the infrastructure bill basically in tandem with a second bill that’s an even larger part of Biden’s legislative agenda—a $3.5-trillion budget measure that would include funding for what the president calls “human infrastructure,” including education, child care and health care.
Unlike the infrastructure bill, the budget measure will be taken up under the reconciliation mechanism. It permits bills to clear the Senate with a simple majority, bypassing the usual 60-vote Senate threshold to avert a filibuster.
Senate Democrats on Aug. 9 rolled out their first stage of that reconciliation measure, a budget resolution that sets overall funding levels for each committee. The Senate approved the budget resolution early on Aug. 11 on a 50-49 vote.
That would be followed up by detailed legislation for the various committees' sectors. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Aug. 11 that his goal is to wrap up that reconciliation measure by Sept. 15.
Industry Seeks Fast House Action
Some construction and engineering officials want to see the two bills unlinked, and are urging faster action on infrastructure.
Stephen Sandherr, Associated General Contractors of America president and CEO, said in a statement, “The last thing Washington should do is hold a much-needed, bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage to partisan politics.”
Hall says, “The ‘win’ on infrastructure is right there.” He adds, “If lawmakers want to battle it out on the social policy side, let them do that and then have that debate. But let’s take the win now on infrastructure.”
Michele Stanley, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association vice president for government and regulatory affairs, said in comments emailed to ENR, “Ultimately, the [infrastructure] bill will pass the House with a small margin. The timing of that is unknown and it may not happen until later this fall, but it will get across the finish line.”
Story updated on 8/11/2021 with Senate passage of budget resolution.