By Don McIntosh
It’s the biggest investment in America’s physical infrastructure since the 1950s: Signed into law by President Joe Biden Nov. 16, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes $1.2 trillion in federal spending over the next five years to upgrade bridges and highways, rail systems and transit, ports and airports, water systems, broadband infrastructure, and more. The $1.2 trillion figure combines $550 billion of new investment plus already expected spending from dedicated revenues like the federal gas tax.
For Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Eugene), it’s a career-high moment. DeFazio is chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and played a big role in crafting the law. At a Nov. 12 press conference and later by phone with the Labor Press, DeFazio was candid about his frustration that it wasn’t bigger still, but also celebrated the bill’s passage as a hugely important win.
“I gotta say, to the unions: Warm up your apprenticeship programs. Get a bigger space and start looking to expand,” DeFazio said. “In terms of infrastructure, union jobs, Davis-Bacon, these are going to be family wage, high-benefit jobs, career jobs.…This is the largest investment that America’s ever made in its deteriorated infrastructure.”
DeFazio is possibly the most committed advocate of infrastructure investment in Congress, and getting a major increase in infrastructure spending has been something of a decades-long personal saga, requiring battle with both Republicans and Democrats. At the height of the Great Recession, DeFazio fought unsuccessfully for ambitious investment in surface transportation to be part of the recovery bill.
He ended up being one of only a few Democrats to vote against Obama’s American Recovery Act, and voted against it because only a small fraction of the act went to infrastructure. Instead, DeFazio says, tax cuts amounted to 10 times what was spent on infrastructure.
“Then comes Trump, the big builder, the compromiser,” DeFazio said. “We sat with him at the White House. He bid us up to $2 trillion when we sat there. We came back two weeks later, he walked in, said ‘If you’re gonna investigate me, I won’t work with you.’ Slammed the door, walked out and had a press conference.”
In the second half of Trump’s term, DeFazio passed a bill out of the House called the Invest Act. It would have been larger than the just-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, and more focused on dealing with climate change.
“I passed that through a real legislative process, many hours in committee, hundreds of amendments, days on the floor. It went nowhere under Trump, and then I passed it again early this year. Unfortunately, the Senate in its dysfunction could not take up the bill because of the filibuster rule.”
Instead, President Biden had to negotiate with the Democratic-led Congress to get the infrastructure bill passed, and in the Senate, 10 Republicans and two conservative Democrats cut DeFazio’s bill by about two-fifths.
DeFazio says the final bill was slightly larger than his bill on highways but significantly lower on transit and rail. But DeFazio said he hopes to fight to restore some of those investments in the next big bill to be taken up, Biden’s Build Back Better Act.
Highlights of the Infrastructure Act
- ROADS AND BRIDGES On top of reauthorizing surface transportation programs for five years, an additional $110 billion to repair roads and bridges, $11 billion for transportation safety programs, including projects to reduce traffic fatalities, and $1 billion to reconnect communities (disproportionately Black neighborhoods) that were divided by highways.
- PASSENGER RAIL $66 billion in additional rail funding to eliminate the Amtrak maintenance backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor, and bring rail service to areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic.
- ELECTRIC TRANSMISSION LINES $65 billion to construct thousands of miles of new transmission lines to facilitate the expansion of renewables and clean energy.
- BROADBAND INTERNET $65 billion toward broadband infrastructure.
- DRINKING WATER $55 billion to improve water infrastructure and eliminate lead service pipes.
- EXTREME WEATHER RESILIENCY $50 billion to develop infrastructure to protect against droughts, heat, floods and wildfires.
- PUBLIC TRANSIT $39 billion of new investment to modernize transit, on top of $50 billion from existing transit programs for the next five years, will be the largest investment in public transit in U.S. history, paying for 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations, and thousands of miles of track, signals, and power systems in need of replacement.
- CLEANUP OF TOXIC SITES $21 billion to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaim abandoned mine land and cap orphaned oil and gas wells.
- PORTS AND AIRPORTS $17 billion for port infrastructure and waterways, and $25 billion for airports to address repair and maintenance backlogs.
- ELECTRIC VEHICLE CHARGING STATIONS $7.5 billion to develop a national network of 500,000 EV charging stations–both within communities and along highway corridors to facilitate long-distance travel.