WASHINGTON – More than 45,000 bridges rated in poor condition. Hundreds of water mains breaking every day. Traffic congestion that, before the pandemic, was adding 54 hours to the average commute.
Not many issues unite Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill like crumbling roads, airports and transit systems back home – and the Biden administration is hoping an effort to modernize America’s neglected infrastructure might fuel a rare moment of bipartisanship.
With Congress’ recent passage of the COVID-19 stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden met with Republican and Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks to discuss how to move forward on an infrastructure plan. He’s expected to unveil his infrastructure proposal in the coming weeks.
See for yourself:How many bad bridges are in your state?
Transportation bills are generally multiyear plans affecting Americans’ commute to work, vacation travel and bicycle and hiking trails among other priorities. And while Biden’s proposal also would affect the day-to-day routines of those who drive, fly and take the train, it’s expected to be much more far-reaching than previous bills by touching on other policy areas such as climate change, economic justice and the digital divide.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is scheduled to appear before the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee on Thursday to lay out the administration’s priorities in what will be a first step in a months-long negotiation with Congress to reshape how Americans travel around the country.
Sen. Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that will help manage an infrastructure bill, sounds optimistic lawmakers of both stripes can come together even amid a time of open partisan warfare.
“There are a lot of things we disagree on here in our nation’s capital,” he said. “One of the things there’s broad agreement on is to get to work on service, transportation, our roads, our highways and our bridges. That’s a Democrat priority, it’s a Republican priority, it is a priority of our new president.”
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But even filling potholes and building runways isn’t an easy task for Congress anymore.
Climate change, a continuing debate to raise the minimum wage to $15 and the hyper-partisan environment on Capitol Hill threaten to derail progress on a compromise even before talks kick into high gear. And that doesn’t include any discussion of whether to raise the federal 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax that hasn’t been increased in 27 years despite mounting highway and transit needs.
Infrastructure needs now reaching $6 trillion
There’s little dispute about the scope of the problem.
The American Society of Civil Engineers graded the condition of America’s infrastructure at a C-minus. That’s the best grade since 1988, Even so, the cost of repairing or modernizing roads, dams, airports and other capital needs keep soaring.
More:Infrastructure: Unsafe roads, bridges, railways across the US, conditions by state
The country’s total infrastructure needs over the decade is approaching $6 trillion or about $2.6 trillion more than what the public and private sectors are projected to spend, according to the organization. If not addressed, ASCE projects the “overdue infrastructure bill” will cost each American household approximately $3,300 per year in lost productivity and higher prices for goods and services.
In addition, the Texas Transportation Institute, which studies commute times, says the extra 54 hours spent idling in traffic costs each commuter $1,080 on average in wasted time and fuel.
The grades from ASCE range from a B in railways to a D- in transit, according to the group’s 2021 report card. Aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports improved since the last assessment in 2017, while just one category – bridges – went down. Overall, 11 categories barely got a passing grade, “a clear signal that our overdue bill on infrastructure is a long way from being paid off,” the report card said.
Among the group’s findings:
- A water main breaks every two minutes, and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost each day in the U.S., enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.
- Nearly half – 43% – of public roads are graded in poor or mediocre condition.
- An estimated one in five school aged children lacked a high-speed internet connection.
- More than 2,300 deficient dams with “high-hazard-potential.”
- Airport terminal upgrades are estimated to cost $6.6 billion.
- The collective cost of addressing transit improvements stands at $176 billion, a deficit expected to exceed $270 billion by 2029.
“The time to go big and bold on our nation’s crumbling infrastructure has arrived,” said Peter DeFazio, the Oregon congressman who chairs the House transportation committee.
More than just roads and bridges
Congressional leaders hope the breadth of the challenge will compel lawmakers to come together as they have in the past on infrastructure legislation.
The next package should include investment in expanding broadband internet access and in traditional roads, bridges and seaports, said Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation funding.
More:Crumbling infrastructure leaves water buckets, boil water notices, as a way of life for some in Mississippi’s capital
“The pandemic has really shined a light on the (broadband) disparities between areas in rural America such as parts of my state of Maine, and more urban areas,” she told reporters. “Since that affects everything from online learning, to working at home, to the delivery of telemedicine, it’s really important that we equalize access to high-speed internet services.”
Buttigieg told the Austin, Texas-based South by Southwest conference Thursday it can’t just be about asphalt anymore.
“We start with something unglamorous, which is fixing and improving what we’re already got — there’s been a trillion dollar backlog just in the roads and bridges we already have,” he said. “But I’ll add there are some things that need to be reduced … sometimes roads need to go on a diet.”
An opportunity to combat climate change
This isn’t just a moment to help the trains run on time. For Biden and congressional Democrats, it’s also about confronting one of the largest sources of climate change.
Transportation, mainly gas-powered vehicles and planes, accounts for about 28% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest sector contributing to climate change, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
And although the pandemic led to the largest annual drop in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions since World War II, carbon emissions across the planet are beginning to rebound, according to a report from the International Energy Agency. The IEA found global emissions were 2% higher in December 2020 than they were in the same month a year earlier.
Progressives in Congress and environmental groups are pushing the administration to include a strong climate component in whatever proposal the Biden administration delivers. Those components are still being discussed so it’s not clear exactly what the final proposal will look like.
During the presidential campaign, Biden promised to “create millions of good, union jobs rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure – from roads and bridges to green spaces and water systems to electricity grids and universal broadband” as part of his Build Back Better agenda.
That includes expanding the number of electric vehicle charging stations and providing medium- and large-sized cities “high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options.”
But Republicans, many of whom represent fossil fuel producing states, are wary of adding progressive climate policies to a bill they generally believe should focus on increasing transportation capacity.
How to pay for improvements
As if climate change initiatives opposed by some Republicans might not complicate the prospect of a big infrastructure deal in a narrowly divided Congress, finding a way to pay for what’s expected to be a multitrillion-dollar bill could sideswipe a potential compromise.
Most surface transportation costs (roads and railways) are paid for by state and local governments, but the federal government plays an important role in financing projects.
Even when some key Republicans pushed for gas tax increases in previous bills, fiscal GOP conservatives helped kill those plans. As chairman of the House transportation committee in 2003, Alaska GOP Rep. Don Young proposed nearly doubling it to 33 cents, but that went nowhere in the Republican-led House.
Given Republicans’ sharp criticism of the just-passed $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus bill, it seems unlikely they’ll be amenable to an infrastructure bill that would add to a national debt that’s already above $28 trillion and climbing.
More:No $15 minimum wage, stimulus checks for people making over $80k: What was left out of Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill
And there’s another element that threatens to crash land any package: the push by progressives on Capitol Hill that the bill include a $15 per hour federal minimum wage after they were unable to keep the provision in the just-passed COVID relief bill.
Some moderate Democrats have joined Republicans in opposing the wage hike proposal. But Biden will face pressure from the left to include the measure in an infrastructure package given the long odds a $15 wage faces if it’s not part of a larger bill.
That has some lawmakers talking about breaking the bill into smaller packages that could get bipartisan support, or even deploying the same budget reconciliation process used to pass COVID-19 relief that avoided Senate filibuster rules and was passed without a single GOP vote.
Republican House Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said that would be a mistake.
“If there’s an infrastructure bill that moves forward, it ought to be bipartisan because there are a lot of Republicans that want to work with Democrats to address our infrastructure needs,” he said. “But you have to talk about how to pay for it as well. You can’t just keep adding mountains of debt at hundreds of billions at a time and not think it’s going to catch up with you.”
Contributing: The Associated Press