Signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (H.R. 1319) is intended to provide economic relief to individuals and state and local governments contending with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. To this end, the wide-ranging legislation includes funding for such items as COVID-19 vaccinations, agriculture and nutrition programs, unemployment benefits, and assistance for small businesses. Of particular interest to infrastructure advocates, the new law provides billions of dollars in federal funding for transit, passenger rail, aviation, and drinking water and wastewater.
In approving the legislation, Democrats in the House and Senate flexed their newfound political muscle, passing the bill in the face of staunch opposition from their Republican counterparts. Introduced on Feb. 24, H.R. 1319 was approved initially by the House three days later by a vote of 219-212. On March 6, the Senate approved an amended version of the bill by a vote of 50-49, necessitating another vote in the House. On March 10, the House voted 220-211 to approve the bill. At no time did a single Republican in Congress vote in favor of the bill.
A lifeline for transit
The legislation appropriates nearly $30.5 billion to the Federal Transit Administration, the most funding dedicated specifically to any infrastructure-related sector in the bill. By far, most of this funding — approximately $26.1 billion — is dedicated to the FTA’s Urbanized Area Formula Grants program, which provides grants to cities and states for transit capital and operating assistance and for transportation-related planning.
In general, the Urbanized Area Formula Grants program funding provided by H.R. 1319 is to be used to help transit providers cover costs incurred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the legislation includes three categories for which the funding may be used: reimbursing payroll of public transportation, operating costs to maintain service due to lost revenue resulting from the coronavirus public health emergency, and paying the administrative leave of operations or contractor personnel due to reductions in service.
“Given the urgent and immense needs of our industry, the American Public Transportation Association applauds enactment of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021,” said Paul Skoutelas, the president and CEO of APTA, in a March 11 news release. “The $30.5 billion in emergency assistance demonstrates a clear and continued commitment to public transportation and the important role it plays in America’s economic recovery.”
Amtrak and airports to benefit
In another move intended to shore up a surface transportation sector hard hit by the pandemic, Congress included $1.7 billion in the American Rescue Plan Act for Amtrak. Of this amount, roughly $970 million is for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, while the remainder is for the rest of the rail provider’s national network.
“This critical funding will benefit the entire Amtrak network, our state and commuter partners, customers, and employees,” said Bill Flynn, Amtrak’s CEO, in a March 10 news release. “With this support, we can restore daily long-distance service, bring back furloughed employees as a result of the pandemic, and continue our progress on vital capital projects.”
Aviation likewise received an economic lifeline from H.R. 1319 in the form of $8 billion for airports. Of this amount, nearly $6.5 billion may be used “for costs related to operations, personnel, cleaning, sanitization, janitorial services, combating the spread of pathogens at the airport, and debt service payments,” according to the legislation. The law also appropriates $100 million for general aviation and commercial service airports.
The much-needed funding comes at a desperate time for airports, said Kevin Burke, the president and CEO of the Airports Council International-North America, in a March 10 news release. “Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced shutdowns across North America and around the world,” Burke said. “While airports quickly mobilized to protect travelers and workers, the significant drop in passenger traffic has decimated airport finances. The pandemic is projected to cost U.S. airports more than $40 billion by March 2022 — a number that will grow if the pandemic drags on.”
More assistance for water and wastewater customers
Water and wastewater agencies also have been hurt financially by the pandemic, particularly by increasing numbers of customers who cannot afford to pay their bills. To help address this problem, Congress included $500 million in H.R. 1319 to be used for grants to states and tribes.
To be disbursed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the funding is intended “to assist low-income households, particularly those with the lowest incomes, that pay a high proportion of household income for drinking water and wastewater services, by providing funds to owners or operators of public water systems or treatment works to reduce arrearages of and rates charged to such households for such services,” according to the legislation. The $500 million is in addition to $638 million that Congress appropriated for this same purpose in the Fiscal Year 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R. 133), which was passed in December. Meanwhile, the American Rescue Plan Act also provides financial aid to renters and homeowners, a portion of which may be used to pay utility bills.
The additional $500 million in assistance for low-income customers provided by the American Rescue Plan Act “makes clear that Congress recognizes the critical role of public drinking water and clean water services and the increased strain many households are facing in paying their water bills as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn,” said Adam Krantz, the CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and Diane VanDe Hei, the CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, in a joint statement issued on March 6.
In a move that could have an even larger effect on the drinking water and wastewater sectors, H.R. 1319 includes language allowing states and local governments to use federal coronavirus relief funding for water and wastewater projects. Specifically, the new law provides $350 billion in fiscal recovery funding for states, tribes, territories, and local governments. Intended to help these entities recover from the financial toll associated with the pandemic, the funds may also be used “to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure,” according to the legislation.