After months of negotiations, the House of Representatives passed Friday evening a major federal infrastructure bill. It promises $1.2 trillion in funding over five years for trains, airplanes, utilities networks, and other energy systems. This legislation is now less ambitious than its original, more ambitious version of $2.3 trillion. It's still huge, according to Adie Tomer (a senior fellow in Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program). He says that the bill is huge in terms of top-line numbers and breadth. It also has a more clear sense of purpose than infrastructure bills. The bill contains many schemes and plans, but it is still easy to miss because it covers 2,700 pages. Here's a cheatsheet for those who don’t have the time to read it. It contains some very important provisions that could make a significant difference in how Americans live.
More money for Scooter-ers, Cyclists, Walkers
The federal government has spent half a century funding roads and bridges that can support trucks and cars. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is its official name, increases investment in "active transport" by sending $1.44 trillion each year to community projects that are aimed at pedestrians, bicyclists and other non-motorized users. This is 70% more money than what the same program received in the previous big bill. This money could be used to maintain or build bike lanes, sidewalks and trails. A $200 million program could connect trails in different communities to create a national network that makes it possible for anyone to travel without a car. For example, the Circuit is a long-standing vision that could see funding go towards a long-standing project. It's a 100-mile network of trails connecting Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, but could eventually stretch to 800 miles. However, Congress will need to approve the money each year in budget bills. Kevin Mills, vice president of public policies at Rails to Trails Conservancy (an advocacy group), said that it was a significant milestone.
Transit funding received record-breaking funding
The bill provides $89.9 billion of funding for public transit. It also includes $39 billion to modernize existing systems and not build new ones. This bill is being billed by the White House as "the largest federal investment made in public transit history." Transit agencies could benefit from this funding, as their ridership and workers continue to suffer from pandemic-related downturns and maintenance backlogs are increasing. Lax maintenance in Washington DC's Metro is believed to be the cause of a derailment that resulted in 40 percent of the Metro's railcars being taken out of service. Advocates don't think it's enough. Benito Perez is the policy director of Transportation For America. He says that after inflation, "the record level of investment" might be just the status quo or less than it should be." Transportation For America is a progressive advocacy organization. He points out that roughly 80 percent of the money in this bill is used for highway-related funding. He says that this has "implications on the climate, safety, and implications for providing meaningful accessibility to all users."
The legislation allocates $65 billion to internet connectivity and accessibility. This was a problem that was especially evident when many Americans turned to the internet during the pandemic. The $42.45 billion will go to grants for states. These funds can be used to gather data about broadband needs and create plans to address them. They also have the ability to pay telecom companies to improve access. A $14.2 billion chunk will provide $30 monthly vouchers to low-income Americans for internet service. This replaces a $50 per month voucher program that was available to fewer people. Tomer, a Brookings Institution researcher, says that this is the first major investment in America's broadband infrastructure. "I believe that it will be an unquestionable component of its legacy."
The Country Must Be Bold Against Climate Change
The hotly contested "Build back Better" plan, which is still in Congress, is another piece of legislation that the Biden administration intends to use against climate change. The infrastructure bill, however, contains enough climate resilience money to make it the largest piece of climate-focused legislation in the country. According to a Brookings Institution report, it allocates $154 billion for climate programs. There's a new program written expressly to create resilient infrastructure--roads, subways, and bridges that can resist the extreme heat, cold, and storms of a changing climate. The White House claims that $5 billion will be spent on electric school buses, and $7.5 billion on electric vehicle charging infrastructure. This money will go towards funding 500,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles by 2030. The electric grid needs to be fixed and improved with $65 billion. Climate activists claim that the effort is not sufficient, especially since the Build Back Better bill was withdrawn. It's a start.
A shift in funding philosophy
This one is a bit wacky, but it is important. Federal infrastructure funding is generally sent to the states and local governments via "formulas," which depend on factors such as population and gas tax revenue. Only $120 billion of $550 billion in federal spending will be distributed through competition programs. This gives Pete Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary, and other officials more control over which projects receive money and Congress more oversight power. Experts predict that the new law will lead to more ambitious mega-projects, such as the Hoover Dam. These mega projects require money and interstate cooperation. Tomer believes that the upside to this could be increased innovation and experimentation. It's going to encourage states and localities bring their best ideas to the table.
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