A Cheat Sheet for ‘Infrastructure Year’
12:30 AM EDT on June 7, 2021
It’s always infrastructure week somewhere.
Washington is in the thick of negotiating two major infrastructure bills — and a constellation of smaller ones — that could reshape American transportation for decades. And we at Streetsblog want to make sure that the priorities that matter most to sustainable transportation advocates don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Here’s a quick, layman’s-language primer on where things stand on Biden’s infrastructure stimulus package and the next surface transportation reauthorization, how they’re different, and why it matters.
This article will be updated periodically as new information becomes available, so bookmark it here.
Wait, are there really two giant infrastructure negotiations going on at once?
Yes. We know, it’s confusing.
One is a giant, one-time infrastructure stimulus package that will invest a ton of money in the nation’s transportation infrastructure (and other forms of infrastructure); the other is a smaller (but still pretty huge) surface transportation reauthorization bill that sets the funding and rules for various ongoing DOT programs. America gets a new reauthorization bill roughly every five years, but a stimulus of this scale is once in a generation.
The two negotiations, obviously, have a lot of overlap, and may ultimately be passed as one massive piece of legislation, but they have very different implications for our transportation future.
What is the surface transportation reauthorization?
Most baseline federal transportation spending programs expire every five years, and when that happens, Congress is required to reauthorize that spending and confirm the amount which each program will get, as well as what rules will govern the distribution of those funds — and this year, time is finally up.
Congress has a huge opportunity in the current reauthorization to set new funding standards for sustainable transportation and reduce funding for programs that build more dangerous roads, and the decisions they make in the next few months could become our national norm well beyond the scope of the next five years.
What is the infrastructure stimulus package?
The idea that “infrastructure week” is a little like the movie Groundhog Day has become a cliché in Washington for a reason: pretty much no president in recent memory has been able to get Congress to approve a significant infrastructure investment outside of the surface transportation reauthorization, despite the fact that spending more on infrastructure is, theoretically, an issue upon which both parties agree. (Though historically, they have only really agreed on the need for more highway spending.)
Biden wanted to change that with the American Jobs Plan, which started as a behemoth $2.25-trillion package that tackles a mess of infrastructure priorities under the banner of rebuilding the economy post-pandemic. With spending spread out over eight years, the plan would be paid for by hefty tax hikes on corporations, and would include a bunch of things that aren’t hard, physical transportation infrastructure, which is a source of contention as the parties negotiate over the bill.
Many of the goals of the AJP got folded into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework in late June, which is an outline that would guide stimulus spending and the set funding and rules for the country's core transportation programs at the same time. More on this policy turducken later.
Where does the surface transportation reauthorization stand?
- First, a little background: back in September of 2020, America’s current surface transportation bill, the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation), came up for expiration. The FAST Act has long been a thorn in the side of transportation advocates, not least because it devotes 80 percent of funding to roads and interstates and less than two percent to active transportation infrastructure.
- In anticipation of the FAST Act expiring, House Democrats introduced a new reauthorization last June, the $1.5-trillion INVEST Act, that was widely applauded by sustainable transportation advocates for holding states accountable for fixing the highways they have before they build new ones and upping money for protecting vulnerable road users. (There was also a ton of money for electric cars, which was a little more divisive.) Then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the bill “a Green New Deal masquerading as an infrastructure bill” and dismissed it as DOA, but it might not be quite so dead yet…more on that in a minute.
- With the INVEST Act stonewalled by the GOP, Congress opted to settle for renewing the FAST Act for one more year, in part because it was an election year and the Democrat-controlled House wanted to see if the party could retake the Senate and pass a more ambitious bill than the GOP would approve while it held power.
- But despite the fact that the Democrats did narrowly win the Senate, lawmakers on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee decided to use that newfound power to release the anemic bipartisan Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act of 2021, a status-quo highway funding bill which was quickly panned for basically undercutting all the good stuff Biden proposed in his stimulus plan and basically giving America the FAST Act, Part II: Faster and More Furious. (Side note: the reauthorization process works a little differently in the Senate than in the House, with a range of committees drafting different components of the plan before they're all jigsawed together into one bill, rather than one transportation committee writing the whole shebang; more on that later. This is just the highway portion of the bill.)
- Luckily, House Democrats had a little more sense than their colleagues in the other chamber, and reintroduced a new-and-improved version of the INVEST Act on June 4 — and they added on about $52 billion in spending and a handful of new provisions, many of which that are similar to critical programs that advocates fear will get slashed from the American Jobs Plan during the negotiation process, like a fund to reconnect BIPOC communities that were sundered by highways. Including those programs under reauthorization also gives them a better chance of being renewed in the next reauthorization, and leaves them less vulnerable to cuts if the GOP reclaims the House in two years. (The INVEST Act passed the House on July 1, but faced a chilly reception in the Senate...more on that later.)
- The Senate Commerce Committee, meanwhile, continued assembling its disappointing piecemeal infrastructure bill when it dropped its take on rail and road user safety, the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 on June 10 — and it came in billions of dollars lower than the equivalent sections of the House bill. (Just to make things extra confusing, it has virutally the same name as the Environmental and Public Works Committee's highway funding bill, because the two would be puzzle-pieced together with the Investment Act and a yet-to-be-released Transit bill to create one, big reauthorization package.) Advocates were particularly unhappy with the portions of the bill having to do with vehicle safety standards, which failed to consider some of the most common-sense reforms, like requiring automatic emergency braking standards on all new cars and trucks or reforming the New Car Assessment Program to finally include information on how likely a vehicle is to kill a pedestrian, cyclist or wheelchair user.
- The House and the Senate have until September to agree on a new reauthorization bill, or else renew the FAST Act again, which pretty much no one in the sustainable transportation movement wants. Right now, Biden is pushing to do that buy essentially inserting the reauthorization bill into his stimulus bill, turducken-style, and passing them both in one go. Which brings us to our next question...
Where does the stimulus stand?
- For various reasons that are the subject of a lot of pundit speculation right now, Biden has said he’s determined to pass the American Jobs Plan with bipartisan support, rather than using his one remaining reconciliation trump card this year to pass it without them.
- After a whole mess of counter-offers from various lawmaker coalitions that went nowhere, Biden presented the Republicans with a skinnier version of the AJP on May 25, cutting about $550 billion from his initial offer. (Most of the cuts had to do with research, broadband internet, and car-focused road and bridge projects rather than transit, road user safety or equity.) Republicans immediately rejected the $1.7-trillion proposal, and missed a Memorial Day deadline Biden had set to come to an agreement.
- To break the deadlock, a bipartisan group of senators called the Problem Solvers Caucus came up with their own $1.2 trillion counteroffer, called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework on June 10. As the name suggests, the framework isn't so much a piece of legislation as a loose outline of how much money each feature of our infrastructure landscape would get, with everything for "highways, roads, safety, and bridges" lumped into one big pile with no word on what that will actually mean for people on various modes. Worse, the ratio of money that transit riders would get compared to drivers went way down.
- Progressive advocates immediately raised concerns that the outline was unacceptably vague and the details of the actual bill could too easily be used to undermine equity, climate and safety priorities.
- ...And, to no one's surprise, it was! On July 26, news leaked that the group responsible for negotiation had proposed to not only insert the Senate's status-quo reauthorization bill into the stimulus to pass them both in concert, but that Republicans and centrist Democrats were using that bill to guide them as they hashed out details of the stimulus, including even further cuts to core transit programs funded by the Highway Trust Fund.
- House Democrats, understandably, were furious — and urged advocates to speak out. This article was last updated on July 28. It will be updated further as the negotiation processes continues.
Kea Wilson has more than a dozen years experience as a writer telling emotional, urgent and actionable stories that motivate average Americans to get involved in making their cities better places. She is also a novelist, cyclist, and affordable housing advocate. She previously worked at Strong Towns, and currently lives in St. Louis, MO. Kea can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @streetsblogkea. Please reach out to her with tips and submissions.
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