After a true infrastructure year, focus turns to implementation

Critics say Biden didn’t achieve his goal of a “fix-it first” approach to highways or a greater prioritization of climate change

If Joe Biden has achieved anything, say analysts watching his presidency, it’s passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
If Joe Biden has achieved anything, say analysts watching his presidency, it’s passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 25, 2022 at 2:00pm

Buoyed by passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in early March, President Joe Biden pushed forward later that month with what had been a signature campaign promise: To rebuild the nation’s crumbling, outdated infrastructure.

It took him nearly seven grueling months, a few false starts and some help with the two Democratic senators who would come to bedevil almost every element  of his agenda, but if Biden has achieved anything, say analysts watching his presidency, it’s the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Now, it’s how his administration implements that law that matters.

“Never in the history of the country, never in my life, has there been so much money for transportation and infrastructure, and to be honest, he deserves the lion’s share of the credit,” former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said of Biden. 

Critics, meanwhile, say that while he achieved the goal of spending money, he did not achieve his goal of a “fix-it first” approach to highways or a greater prioritization of climate change.

“I think the administration so far has really repeated the Obama move of the first year,” said Beth Osborne of Transportation for America, which advocates for transit. “Let’s pour money into programs that are basically unchecked and unaccountable.”

She said how the administration implements the law will be key to whether it meets Biden’s stated priorities.

The bill, which passed the House Nov. 5, was far from what Biden originally envisioned. 

The plan he released in March 2021 was sweeping, proposing to pour $621 billion into transportation infrastructure and resilience, including $85 billion for transit, $80 billion for rail and $174 billion to boost America’s electric vehicle market — a sum that included tax incentives and support for EV manufacturers.

It also acknowledged concerns that federal policy has too often disadvantaged communities of color. Biden’s original proposal included $20 billion to reconnect communities that had been isolated by overpasses or bridges, effectively making it harder for residents to find economic opportunities outside of their own neighborhoods.

The final bill was far more modest in scope, including $39.2 billion for transit, $66 billion for rail and $7.5 billion for electric vehicles, with the latter all designated to build charging stations. The equity provision, meanwhile, received just $1 billion. 

The overall bill omitted money for care for elderly and the disabled, for veterans hospitals and school facilities and for research and development. Many of those agenda items were tucked in a second reconciliation bill, which appears stalled indefinitely in Congress.

That bill also included more transportation money for Biden’s key priorities: $10 billion for high-speed rail, as well as $4 billion more for equity programs. Whether those priorities will be resuscitated as Democrats in Congress attempt to take a piecemeal approach to that package is to be seen. 

Osborne, of Transportation for America, said the administration has “made a lot of promises about what the dollars will accomplish, despite the fact that they don’t have authority over how much of it is spent,” she said. 

She criticized the law for giving states the flexibility to spend without necessarily moving toward the administration’s goals. “How creative are they going to be with their authority?” she asked. “They’ll have to figure that out really, really quickly.”

The administration has already begun divvying up some of the dollars, including for a program aimed at repairing about 15,000 bridges. But because Congress is operating under a continuing resolution at fiscal 2021 funding levels through mid-February, the DOT does not yet have access to all the money it needs to implement the law. 

‘Utopian dreams’

Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, said that while Biden met his goal of enacting comprehensive infrastructure legislation, his goals related to transforming transportation infrastructure and how Americans travel “are unlikely to be met.” The huge investment in passenger rail, he said, won’t likely change American travel behavior or lead them to use rail.

“Unfortunately, most of the debate that took place on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was on topline spending numbers, with very little attention paid to how that money would actually deliver value to infrastructure owner-operators and users,” Scribner said. 

He characterizes the law as impractical, “chasing utopian dreams,” rather than thinking critically about what the nation needs.

“Given the massive amount of funding, President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg still have an opportunity to deliver major benefits to the public,” Scribner said. “But to date, the Biden administration has shown a special affinity for high-cost, low-return projects.” 

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the moderate Brookings Institution, said counting just the bipartisan infrastructure bill as Biden’s signature infrastructure achievement omits another important achievement: Biden’s rescue plan, which passed in March.

That bill included some $362 billion to state and local governments to help cover anticipated revenue shortfalls. That money could be used to pay for infrastructure improvements. It also included $58 billion for transportation, including $30.5 billion for transit, $1.7 billion for Amtrak, $8 billion for airports and airport concessionaires and $15 billion to help air carriers sustain their payrolls. 

The bill is widely acknowledged to have provided a critical relief valve for a handful of the nation’s transit systems, which faced imminent bankruptcy.

But Tomer said some of the aid to states and local governments also proved critical. By helping them dig out of debt, Tomer said Congress helped lay the foundation for long-term projects the bipartisan infrastructure bill will pay for. That bill, he said, put them in a good place to use the bipartisan infrastructure money wisely. 

And “they still have three more years,” he said.

LaHood said that during a tumultuous first year in office, Biden’s infrastructure law was a definitive win.

“We have been languishing far too long and become so bad at taking care of our infrastructure that this is the pot at the end of the rainbow, so to speak,” he said.

Biden, he said, “really bridged the breach,” to find consensus between those who want to build roads and bridges and those who want infrastructure policy to lower greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change as well as undo the legacy of using infrastructure to divide disadvantaged communities.

“He did what he told the American people he was going to do,” LaHood said. “Put people to work rebuilding America.”