President Joe Biden's $6.8-trillion budget request for fiscal year 2024 proposes increases for many important infrastructure programs, but the funding hikes aren't across the board.
Biden's budget, transmitted to Congress on March 9, includes a big boost in the Federal Transit Administration's Capital Investment Grants, which fund new transit starts, and a jump in Dept. of Veterans Affairs construction and maintenance programs.
The Environmental Protection Agency's water infrastructure program would see its spending rise by $1 billion, to $4 billion. But within that total, the mainstay Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds would be frozen at their 2023 levels of $1.6 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively.
ENR could not yet provide an in-depth analysis of the budget's construction and infrastructure funding recommendations because the White House budget rollout did not include a detailed appendix showing the numbers for all of the proposal's many line items.
"We are still working our way through the budget, says Brian Turmail, Associated General Contractors of America vice president public affairs and strategic initiatives.
Turmail told ENR via email on March 10, "At this point what is clear is that this [budget] document is really designed to do one thing–provoke a political debate about the best ways to continue investing in infrastructure, address entitlement spending and set priorities for other federal investments."
He said that the numbers in the Biden budget request have almost no chance of becoming a reality.
Highways and Transit
Still, there are some encouraging highlights in the request. They include programs at the Dept. of Transportation, which did provide detailed budget material. One important proposed DOT increase is the $60.1 billion in federal-aid highway funds distributed to states by formula, up $1.3 billion from 2023.
When funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are included, FHWA's total budget resources total $70.2 billion, down about $2 billion, or about 3% from the enacted 2023 level.
Another positive is in the recommendations for DOT's Federal Transit Administration. The proposal includes $14 billion in formula transit funds, a $356-million boost from this year. FTA's Capital Investment Grant program would see its 2024 spending rise to $2.9 billion, from $2.6 billion in 2023.
When IIJA dollars are added, the picture for the capital grants is even brighter. FTA's latest annual report for the grants, released with the budget proposal, recommends $4.45 billion for 18 large projects in 11 states.
DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a budget rollout day press briefing, "Each one is a game-changing project in the region where it will be built or continued."
The largest allocation, $700 million, would go to the proposed Hudson Tunnel, to link north New Jersey with New York City. But officials noted that the massive project still needs to have a signed full-funding grant agreement and congressional appropriations to gain access to the money.
American Public Transportation Association President and Chief Executive Office Paul P. Skoutelas welcomed the proposed funding for FTA and urged Congress to approve full funding in the appropriations bill covering DOT, expected later this year.
In all the FTA request includes $21.3 billion –down about $60 million from the 2023 enacted number–plus $4.25 billion from the IIJA, the same as in 2023.
For the Federal Aviation Administration, the Biden proposal includes $3.35 billion from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund for airport infrastructure grants, the same as the 2023 enacted mark.
The 2023 FAA appropriations also included $3.35 billion for airport grants from the general fund, for congressionally earmarked projects. Congress may again seek to add earmarks this year.
For Amtrak, the Biden request has a total of about $7.5 billion for grants, including about $3.1 billion in new appropriations and $4.4 billion from the IIJA.
Of the $7.5 billion, the Northeast Corridor would receive about $2.4 billion and the remainder would go to Amtrak's non-Northeast services.
The proposed new Amtrak grant appropriations are up $615 million, or 25%, compared with the 2023 enacted number. The IIJA figure is the same as this year's.
Among federal buildings programs, the budget proposal for the VA includes $1.6 billion in discretionary funds and $1.9 billion in mandatory funds to build and expand infrastructure and health care facilities. The VA proposal also contains $5 billion for non-recurring maintenance work on facilities' infrastructure.
Corps Civil Works
For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works programs, the budget proposes to trim discretionary appropriations by $1.2 billion or 14%, to $7.4 billion. But Corps officials said in a press briefing that they are seeking to use an additional $1 billion in 2024 revenue from non-budget-request sources, such as a coastal wetlands trust fund, permit fees, and the Bonneville Power Administration.
[View Corps of Engineers budget briefing material here.]
The Corps budget includes $350 million toward the planned replacement for the Cape Cod Canal Bridges, which the Corps owns and operates. The project is expected to cost about $4 billion.
In a novel twist, the Biden budget also includes a legislative proposal to transfer funds and ownership of the bridges to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which would then design and build the replacement spans.
But Tracy Zea, Waterways Council Inc. president and CEO, says, "From a purely inland waterways standpoint, we are extremely disappointed in this [Corps] budget."
He says that construction dollars for river locks and dams and other inland projects "have been completely zeroed out."
Zea adds that the Corps is not requesting to draw any 2024 funds from the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.
He said in an interview that the budget "is kind of puzzling to me." He adds, "I think it sends a wrong signal to Congress in the need to strengthen the supply chain, which the inland waterways are part of."
Zea says that there are five projects that could use 2024 dollars: Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Mississippi-Three Rivers, at the mouth of the Arkansas River; LaGrange Lock on the Illinois Waterway; the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Brazos River floodgate in Texas; and several locks and dams on the Lower Monongahela River, near Pittsburgh.
Of those, all but the Texas project are underway, and a lack of 2024 construction funds would increase their costs and push completion dates further into the future, according to Zea.
In the March 9 briefing Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, the Army's Chief of Engineers, said that his request for 2024 did not include the capability to use the Inland Waterway Trust Fund.
Spellmon said the Corps already has "a massive amount of work ongoing currently on our inland waterways." He added, "Certainly it has stretched us."
Spellmon said,"We want to get this work finished before we open up the next round of important projects."
GOP Aims at Non-Defense Programs
The release of the budget request is a milepost in the long annual process of producing spending bills. The new variable this year is Republicans' taking the majority, though a slim one, in the House.
Already GOP lawmakers seem to be taking aim at nondefense discretionary spending. For example, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) said in a statement that the request, "spends far too much on unnecessary programs at the expense of our national security." She added, "America simply cannot afford this misguided plan."
Asked at the Corps briefing whether there is concern that Corps programs might face appropriations pressure, Michael Connor, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said, "I think there's been strong bipartisan support for the civil works programs." Connor cited the funding levels in the IIJA, as well as last year's Water Resources Development Act and "the very significant resources provided in the last two appropriations bills."
He added, "I think in an era of discussion about deficit and budget, there's a recognition of the need to maintain strong investments in programs that protect communities–wherever they are, whoever they are–and that's what the Army civil works program does."
The Waterways Council's Zea, says, "This is investment. This isn't just discretionary spending."
He adds that when the final 2024 numbers emerge from Congress, "We do think that you won't see a major drop in Corps of Engineers funding."
Story updated on 3/10/23 to add detailed breakdown of DOT budget, as well as comments from the Associated General Contractors of America, American Public Transportation Association and Waterways Council Inc.