The SourceCivil Engineering MagazinePolicy Briefing: Biden plan focuses on transportation, water, and resilience

Policy Briefing: Biden plan focuses on transportation, water, and resilience

By Jay Landers

Released by the White House on March 31, the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan proposes a massive increase in federal spending on infrastructure, building upgrades, broadband, research and development, manufacturing, and home care over the next eight years. Among infrastructure sectors, transportation would receive the bulk of the funding, followed by drinking water and clean water projects, power systems, and public schools. “The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race,” according to the 27-page fact sheet from the White House summarizing the proposal.

Support from ASCE

For its part, ASCE endorsed the plan immediately. “The American Society of Civil Engineers applauds President (Joe) Biden’s American Jobs Plan, a truly historic proposal for modernizing and improving the nation’s infrastructure,” said Jean-Louis Briaud, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE, Dist.M.ASCE, the Society’s president, in a March 31 statement. “ASCE urges Congress and the Administration to now work together to develop a comprehensive, bipartisan, infrastructure bill that will set the plan in motion — rebuilding and modernizing our infrastructure systems, while growing the economy, increasing public safety, and creating jobs and more resilient communities.”

This support reflects the fact that the American Jobs Plan exhibits some of the same priorities that ASCE emphasized in its recently released 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, says Emily Feenstra, the Society’s managing director for government relations and infrastructure initiatives. “It’s pretty incredible that so many of our report card categories, including some that haven’t gotten a lot of attention in the past, are included,” Feenstra says. “The investment needs or proposed funding seem to be quite a bit in line with our recommendations. We were happy to see that.”

Although Congress still must weigh in on the plan, anything that comes close to what the administration has proposed would affect the civil engineering profession in a significant, long-lasting way, says Matt Chiller, a vice president for government relations at Jacobs.

If adopted, the American Jobs Plan would be “transformative for the design and construction industry,” Chiller says. “It provides tremendous multiyear certainty. It provides the type of funding that’s really needed to drive a wide variety of engineering, design, and construction industries forward into the future.”

Transportation and environmental justice

Transportation tops the list among Biden’s infrastructure priorities. Under the plan, the sector would receive $621 billion to improve the condition and increase the resilience of transportation assets. Of this amount, $115 billion would fund efforts “to modernize the bridges, highways, roads, and main streets that are in most critical need of repair,” according to the fact sheet. The funding would “modernize 20,000 miles of highways, roads, and main streets, not only ‘fixing them first’ but ‘fixing them right,’ with safety, resilience, and all users in mind,” the fact sheet states.

The plan also calls for redressing past wrongs related to transportation. Specifically, the proposal includes $20 billion for a “new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access,” according to the fact sheet.

ASCE supports this focus on environmental justice, Feenstra says, as it accords with the Society’s Policy Statement 417 on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, which was approved by the Board of Direction in October 2020. The proposed program for reconnecting neighborhoods would provide a “nice first step for the federal government to look at some of these past decisions that perhaps were made with less input and see how some of these neighborhoods can be reconnected and revitalized,” Feenstra says. “This funding and program would build on work that many states are already doing.”

A plug for electric vehicles

Electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed to power them would receive $174 billion, by far the largest total devoted to any segment within the transportation industry. This funding would take multiple forms, including tax incentives and rebates to entice consumers to buy electric vehicles and support U.S. manufacturers of electric vehicles. Of note, the proposal calls for grant and incentive programs for state and local governments and the private sector to build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers by 2030, according to the fact sheet.

Federal funding for such efforts at the state and local levels is “critically important,” Chiller says. “State departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations really need that type of money to advance a technology like this,” he notes.

Under Biden’s plan, transit would receive $85 billion “to modernize existing transit and help agencies expand their systems to meet rider demand,” the fact sheet states. “This investment will double federal funding for public transit, spend down the repair backlog, and bring bus, bus rapid transit, and rail service to communities and neighborhoods across the country.” Meanwhile, the plan would devote $80 billion to Amtrak, $25 billion to airports, and $17 billion to inland waterways, coastal ports, land ports of entry, and ferries.

Emphasis on resilience

The plan calls for $50 billion to increase the resilience of infrastructure and other vital facilities. To be allocated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation, the funding would be used to boost resilience “in the most essential services, including the electric grid; food systems; urban infrastructure; community health and hospitals; and our roads, rail, and other transportation assets,” the proposal states. In addition, the funding would be used to protect and restore “nature-based infrastructure — our lands, forests, wetlands, watersheds, and coastal and ocean resources.”

Such a level of funding for resilience “would have a huge impact on the (engineering) industry and our client base,” Chiller says. “It’s where the industry is headed. It’s where our clients are headed on the municipal level.”

The American Jobs Plan summary highlights FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program as one of the intended recipients of the proposed resilience funding. Created by Congress in 2018 as part of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, the BRIC program offers grants intended to increase local community resilience as a means of reducing federal disaster spending.

A strong advocate of the BRIC program, ASCE has collaborated with FEMA as the agency has worked to publicize the new program and solicit grant applications from interested parties, Feenstra says. A key strength of the BRIC program, she notes, is its emphasis on the use of consensus-based standards, including ASCE 7 (Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures) and ASCE’s Manual of Practice 140 (Climate-Resilient Infrastructure: Adaptive Design and Risk Management).

A ‘game-changer’ for water

Water infrastructure likewise would receive significant attention under the American Jobs Plan. All told, the plan recommends $111 billion for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater management systems. If it were to come to fruition, such an amount “would really be a game-changer,” says Dan Hartnett, the chief advocacy officer for legislative and regulatory affairs at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. “That would make a lot of difference and carry out a lot of projects that have been on the drawing board for a long time,” Hartnett says.

Of this amount, $56 billion would take the form of grants and loans to states, tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities, according to the fact sheet. Although the proposal does not specify how this funding would be disbursed, presumably it would be distributed through existing programs, Hartnett says, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and its Drinking Water State Revolving Fund as well as its Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program. Another outlet might include the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Water and Environmental Programs, he notes.

Meanwhile, $45 billion would be devoted to eliminating “all lead pipes and service lines” in drinking water systems across the country, according to the fact sheet.

However, any federal funding to remove lead service lines would have to contend with the “somewhat complicated” issue of ownership of such lines, Hartnett says. Typically, water utilities own the service line extending from the water main to the meter box on the property line, while the property owner owns the service line extending from the meter box to the house or other building on the property. “Utilities generally are unable to go onto private property and replace people’s privately owned pipes without their consent,” Hartnett says.

Of the remaining funding, $10 billion would go toward monitoring and remediating drinking water systems tainted with the contaminants known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS.

Republicans respond

On April 22, the ranking members of several key Senate committees released their own, less detailed framework for infrastructure. The two-page document was unveiled by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., ranking member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works; Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Pat Toomey, R-Pa., ranking member of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, ranking member of the Committee on Finance; and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The Republican proposal calls for $568 billion in infrastructure spending over five years. In particular, the framework would devote $299 billion to roads and bridges, $65 billion to broadband, $61 billion to public transit systems, $44 billion to airports, $35 billion to drinking water and wastewater systems, $20 billion to rail, $17 billion to inland waterways and ports, $14 billion to water storage, and $13 billion to highway and pipeline safety.

Capito highlighted what she viewed as the benefits of the more streamlined nature of the Republican framework. “We have an opportunity to develop bipartisan legislation that makes these long-term investments, while at the same time driving job creation and economic growth,” Capito said in an April 22 news release. “But, it’s important that any infrastructure legislation have adequate funding levels and not be so large as to fail to launch, which means sticking to actual infrastructure. That’s why our framework works. It serves as a realistic, thoughtful approach that addresses the core areas of infrastructure that we all agree upon.”

Congressional discussion and debate regarding the Biden administration’s ambitious plan is expected to take time, given its broad scope, enormous price tag, and somewhat inchoate nature. That said, infrastructure advocates remain hopeful that congressional approval of a major infrastructure package will occur this year.

“Democrats and Republicans both want to claim infrastructure as an issue,” Feenstra says. “What remains to be seen is what kind of form this takes legislatively, what the sticking points will be,” she says. “I think there’s good momentum, and there’s a lot of people who want to see this happen.”

On April 28, ASCE released a statement from Tom Smith, executive director, on the infrastructure priorities that were outlined in President Joe Biden’s first joint address to Congress that evening.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The true infrastructure part is good. That covers about 30% of the $2 trillion, dependent on what one considers infrastructure. What we are doing to future generations also matters to engineers. I cannot support piling on another $2 trillion of debt to the $1.9 trillion COVID/state bail out expenditure and the proposed additional federal spending. Focused federal spending such as the old PL 92-500 and its successor accomplished specific goals for wastewater. Right now this appears to be more of a scattershot approach to throw a lot of money out into the public sector. I appreciate the author’s efforts and in no way do I intend to denigrate him or the article. Even without the focus I prefer I could support an expenditure in the range of $400-$600 billion, but not this level of expenditures. I love my kids and grandkids too much to do that.

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