House passage of a long-awaited bipartisan infrastructure bill has set in motion an urgent effort to demonstrate progress on one of President Joe Biden’s signature domestic priorities in time for the 2022 midterm elections.
It’s one thing to pass a bill, say analysts. It’s another to make the bill’s impact tangible to Americans.
“The speed by which they implement this becomes of paramount political importance to the Democratic party,” said Adie Tomer, the head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution. By October, he said, “the Democrats should be hoping for some big Ed McMahon checks and photo opportunities across the country.”
The frenzy to implement the bill began even before has Biden signed it, which he’s scheduled to do Monday.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Monday appeared at a White House briefing to tout the impact of the newly passed bill, which reauthorizes surface transportation programs and dumps $550 billion in new spending into infrastructure within the next five years.
The administration on Tuesday held at least three calls: One from Buttigieg’s deputy at DOT, Polly Trottenberg, one from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and one from EPA deputy administrator Janet McCabe. Other agencies followed suit Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Trottenberg said she is preparing for her $90 billion agency to become a $140 billion one. “Obviously, we’re an agency that’s going to grow,” she said.
But the frenzy belies a stark reality. Sweeping legislation takes a while to implement. Lawmakers still lament the slow implementation for the 2018 FAA Reauthorization law. As of last month, at least three provisions were outstanding in the 2016 FAA law.
In a press call Tuesday, Trottenberg said some of the provisions in the bill, such as those based on formulas that have been operating for years, will be straightforward to implement.
In other cases — such as the new equity program called “Reconnecting Communities” to restore convenient access to neighborhoods isolated by previous infrastructure projects — Trottenberg said it may take a little longer.
“We obviously want to do that as quickly as possible but also get the details right,” she said.
Many local transportation agencies, she said, “have a lot of projects, and they’re ready to start investing the money right away.”
“We really hope that communities across the country will start to see those infusions of dollars pretty quickly,” she said.
“I also want to be careful in setting expectations,” Trottenberg said. “This is a five-year bill, some of the projects are going to take more time and we want to make sure we make investments up front but that we also take the time on some on rail projects and on thinking through some of the more transformational things we want to do to get those right.”
With the 2022 midterms approaching, Tomer said both progress and perception of progress will be important.
During the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for example, the Federal Highway Administration issued guidance urging state DOTs to post signs advertising that highway projects were associated with the law. President Barack Obama, the FHWA wrote in guidance on its website “made the commitment” that all projects funded by the law “will bear a recovery emblem to make it easier for Americans to see which projects are funded (by the law.)”
It’s tricker than it would seem: While 19 Republicans backed the infrastructure bill in the Senate, the 13 Republicans who did so in the House are facing backlash and, in the case of at least one lawmaker, death threats.
Tomer noted that some Republicans who opposed the most recent COVID-19 relief bill nevertheless sent out press releases touting dollars for their districts. “How will the Republicans play it?” he asked.
Others say Democrats need not sweat the speed of implementation.
Rory Cooper, a Republican political strategist at the bipartisan Purple Strategies group, said that while “having tangible things to show for the bill by the election would certainly help … I don’t know if voters are sitting around with a stopwatch waiting.”
The larger progress made by the bill will be measured in the years to come, not the months ahead, predicts Allan Marks, a project finance lawyer with Milbank LLP.
He said the bill is meant to help grow the economy sustainably over a longer period of time, enabling future growth. It’s not a quick hit.
“The political win here is they were seen getting something done,” he said. “Not getting anything done when you’re the party in power is embarrassing. This is something big that sets up the country for longer-term growth.”
Still, how the law is implemented will also be telling, said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, a smart-growth group and advocate for transit.
Biden entered the process with transformative goals, such as fighting climate change and increasing equity. But the bill that passed the House last week, Osborne wrote in an email, “is status quo.”
She said 75 percent of the formula dollars in the bill are going to the same things they always have, while only 2 to 5 percent are going toward climate and safety projects.
“The question is: what is this administration going to do administratively to get something different from the same programs that have caused the problems they’re claiming they want to solve?” she wrote. “They should have a very specific list to go [to] right now.”
That same predictability, however, is encouraging for Dean Franks, senior vice president of congressional relations for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which represents the transportation construction industry.
Much of the money in the bill will be for programs that don’t need to be stood up, he said — there will just be more money for those programs.
“There’s a 38 percent increase in highway funding from 2021 through 2022,” Franks said referring to both the extra supplemental appropriations approved in 2021 and the bipartisan bill in 2022. “We haven’t seen that at a federal level in this country since 1959.”
Susan Howard, program director for transportation finance at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said more than $100 billion out of the $550 billion in new spending will be for new grant programs. Those programs, she said, “will take the longest amount of time” to implement.
But one concern will be what happens after five years when the bill expires. It’s hard to take things away from a public that is accustomed to getting them. The pressure will be on to continue funding at these new, higher levels.
“How do we meet the investment level beyond the bill,” Howard said. “It’s a really important question and one that will have to be reckoned with. It’s hard once you’ve gone down that road to pull back.”
“Maybe this is a new era of investment. Maybe it’s a moon shot, a once in a lifetime, New Deal-type investment. I’m not sure,” she said.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said Wednesday he expects taxpayers will quickly see progress on the bill. He said that even before the bill passed, manufacturers were gearing up for the bill’s implementation.
“Hopefully, people don’t get upset by all the construction going on,” he said. “It’s going to be very obvious to the American people that we’ve begun the meaningful reconstruction of the deteriorating infrastructure in this country. It’s going to be hard to miss.”