A view of the Toston Bridge, an iron truss bridge in Broadwater County. The U.S. Senate is poised to pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with money for highways, bridges, broadband and more. (By Robstutz, CC BY SA 3.0, Creative Commons).
The Senate is poised to pass a massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would upgrade state transportation networks, electric grids, water systems and more.
It’s a major spending boost and potential job-creator that yet falls short of the administration’s goals to address climate change and reduce its effects in the states.
The White House worked for months with a group of 10 senators from both parties to write the 2,700-page bill, which includes a five-year highways and transit authorization. The Biden administration has said it would add up to 2 million new jobs every year for the rest of the decade.
The measure would also boost spending on electric vehicle charging stations, transit programs, passenger rail and other programs meant to reduce transportation fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change.
“It’s the culmination of a lot of effort over the years to do something big and bold on infrastructure,” said Susan Howard, the program director for transportation finance at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, a group that advocates for state departments of transportation.
“We’re talking about a level of investment over the next five years that will be significant and have lasting impact.”
But critics who wanted to see a greater focus on President Joe Biden’s stated goals of advancing climate action and equity for disadvantaged communities say the spending comes up short, or even worsens, progress toward those goals.
“If you think about this bill in a historical context, we would say these are impressive investments,” said Kevin DeGood, an infrastructure specialist at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.
“But if you think about it with respect to the magnitude of the challenge we face, first and foremost around climate but also around equity and things like that, we would say it’s inadequate.”
Although the bill has bipartisan support, Montana’s senators were split on the spending package. Republican Sen. Steves Daines tweeted that it would add to inflationary worries while Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who had been part of the bipartisan negotiations, touted the investment in jobs.
MTns were told that the 2,700 page bill would not increase the debt. According to @USCBO, we now know that’s untrue.
MTns are dealing with soaring inflation & skyrocketing prices on everything from gas to groceries. This will only heap huge amounts of debt on future generations.
Great news! Our bipartisan infrastructure bill has cleared a major Senate hurdle today, and we’re working hard to get it over the finish line. This bill invests in Montana’s aging infrastructure, creates good-paying jobs, and ensures we can thrive in the 21st century economy.
The bill would reauthorize surface transportation programs for five years, normally a major accomplishment on its own, Howard said.
It would provide $351 billion over five years for highway and bridge funding, a nearly 50% increase over current levels.
It also includes $107 billion for transit, a 65% boost, according to an analysis by Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation.
The bill also includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations, the first such federal effort. It would provide $2.5 billion to transit agencies and school districts for electric buses and ferries.
It would spend $66 billion on passenger rail, in what the administration called “the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago.”
Although those provisions and others are meant to reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and reconnect communities displaced by earlier transportation projects, spending on those programs is dwarfed by the funds for highway spending, said Beth Osborne, the director of the Washington think tank Transportation for America that advocates for safer transportation systems and more efficient spending.
The transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which estimated 29% of U.S. emissions in 2019 came from transportation.
“We’re going to do things to reduce climate emissions, but we’re going to spend more in ways that we know increase them,” Osborne said.
The White House’s first infrastructure proposal, introduced in April, said “Every dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure during the Biden administration will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis.”
But the hundreds of billions in new highway spending sends another message, DeGood said, saying highways were similar to oil pipelines in encouraging fossil fuel use.
“A pipeline is carbon production infrastructure,” DeGood said. “A highway is carbon consumption infrastructure.”
Democrats in the Senate, including Thomas E. Carper of Delaware, the chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee responsible for highways authorization, acknowledged the bill did not sufficiently address climate change.
In a statement, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Carper called for more climate action in the next major item the Senate plans to consider—a budget reconciliation bill that will likely gain no Republican votes.
“The climate crisis demands bold action, and while the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently before the Senate is a first step, on its own the bill does not go nearly far enough to restore and protect the most vulnerable communities on the frontlines of this crisis,” they said. “As the Senate prepares to consider reconciliation legislation …, it is imperative that our investments directly benefit underserved communities.”
Reducing wildfire risk
As wildfires have ravaged the West and caused hazy skies throughout the country this summer, the bill’s supporters highlighted provisions meant to address fires.
“This historic, bipartisan infrastructure package ensures that Forest Service and Interior have the resources they need to not only fight fires, but also prepare communities and landscapes for the next fire before it happens,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said in a Wednesday statement.
The bill includes $3.37 billion to reduce wildfire risk, according to a release from Tester. The Senate also approved an amendment Sens. Michael Bennet, (D-Colo.), and John Hoeven, (R-N.D.), wrote that would double the funding for a program to improve resiliency on public and private lands.
“It’s clearly throwing a lot of money at the issue and that is a good thing,” Susan Jane Brown, a senior attorney with the conservation group Western Environmental Law Center, said.
“Just throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but what we know about the Forest Service and [the Bureau of Land Management] in particular is that when it comes to wildfire resilience, they’ve been underfunded for years by Congress.”
On the other hand, the bill includes policy changes to forest management that give conservationists “heartburn,” Brown said.
For example, the bill would allow the Forest Service to cut down trees to create fire breaks, but that opens the possibility that breaks would go under managed and be fertile ground for the flammable underbrush that sparks and spreads many fires.
What about the House bill?
The Senate bill’s momentum raises questions about the $715 billion, five-year transportation bill the House passed last month that included $5.7 billion in funding earmarked for hundreds of specific projects lawmakers sponsored that are greatly desired by states, counties and cities.
The earmarks were included after a lengthy process of submissions by House members, the first time in years earmarks had been allowed in legislation.
State departments of transportation prefer the Senate version because it offers them more flexibility in spending federal funds, Howard said.
But Osborne said the House bill is “better in every single way,” especially by restricting that flexibility. The House bill, for example, includes a provision that requires states to improve roads that need repair before constructing new ones.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester details spending
Sen. Jon Tester’s office provided details on what the infrastructure bill would bring to Montana, including the following:
$304 billion over five years for the Highway Trust Fund, which includes roughly $2.82 billion for Montana highways.
Montana will also receive approximately $225 million in additional funding for a new bridge initiative to replace and repair bridges in poor condition.
Roughly $164 million for Montana over five years to bolster public transit infrastructure, a roughly 30 percent increase
o The portion of bus funds set aside for rural areas was increased.
Roughly $144 million for Montana airports
$2.5 billion to complete all authorized Indian water rights settlements, including settlements for Montana Tribes.
$1 billion to complete all authorized rural water projects through the Bureau of Reclamation, including Fort Peck/Dry Prairie, Rocky Boys/North Central, and Musselshell-Judith rural water systems.
Approximately $138 million for Rocky Boys/North Central
Approximately $56 million for Musselshell-Judith
Approximately $17 million for Fort Peck/Dry Prairie
Up to $100 million for rehabilitating the Milk River Project.
Clarifies that American Rescue Plan state and local fiscal recovery funds may be used towards the state or federal cost share to rehabilitate Bureau of Reclamation water infrastructure.
$3.5 billion for Indian Health Service Sanitation Construction program, filling all outstanding needs in the program nationwide.
This includes roughly $40 million in water, sewage, and sanitation projects for the Blackfeet Tribe
$11.2 billion in grants for states and Tribes to reclaim abandoned mine lands. Montana is expected to receive at least $20 million, over six times the state’s annual federal Abandoned Mine Land distribution.
$42.45 billion grant program for broadband deployment to areas of the country lacking access to internet service. The program will be distributed in the following manner:
o $4.2 billion of which is set aside for high-cost, geographically-challenged areas that are especially difficult and expensive to deploy broadband infrastructure to.
o $100 million allocation to each state distributed during the planning and proposal stage. Up to $5 million in funding to support state broadband office activities including planning, coordination, and grant administration.
o Additional funding allocated to each state using a formula based on that state’s total unserved population.
$2 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which will help Tribal entities with broadband deployment, digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth, and distance learning.
$2 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, which provide loans and grants to fund broadband service deployment and maintenance in rural areas.
$14.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB). As of July, 2021, 5,498 households in Montana have enrolled in this program, which helps people pay their internet bills.
$3.85 billion for Land Ports of Entry to modernize and secure the Northern and Southern border.
Tester-Moran bill to extend the IRS tax filing deadlines in Fire Management Assistance Grants for areas after significant fires
$3.37 billion for reducing wildfire risk, including:
o $500 million for Forest Service Community Defense Grants to support community-led efforts to improve community wildfire readiness, planning actions, and removing vegetation.
o $500 million for prescribed fires to reduce fuel loads and large fire risk.
o $500 million to do mechanical thinning and timber harvest to promote fire-resilient stands
o $500 million to develop fire control points, including through the creation of fuelbreaks
o $200 million to remove flammable vegetation for the creation of biochar or innovative woodproducts, with a note for agencies to consider working with youth and conservation corps, and engage with Tribes and veterans.
o $200 million for post-fire restoration activities
o $100 million for Interior and Forest Service to conduct staff training and planning work to support wildland fire and vegetation treatment operations
o $100 million for Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program projects
o $20 million for the Joint Fire Science program (which supports research at the University of Montana and Montana State University)
o Includes the bipartisan REPLANT Act freeing up additional Forest Service funding for reforestation activities, and provides $450 million to rehabilitate and restore burned areas.
Resiliency (Flood, Drought)
$7 billion for Army Corps of Engineers infrastructure priorities to improve flood mitigation
$350 million of that for Army Corps CAP funding which includes Section 205 levee projects
o A $100 million increase for the CAP program
$3.5 billion for FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance program
$1 billion for the FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program. This is a pre-disaster mitigation program, supporting states, local communities, tribes and territories undertaking hazard mitigation projects to reduce the risks they face from disasters and natural hazards.
$2.2 billion for the Aging Infrastructure Account, including to The Bureau of Reclamation for water infrastructure projects across the West that are in need of major upgrades or replacement
$500 million for the Western Area Power Administration’s power purchase and transmission activities.
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