As the 2,702-page, $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure behemoth begins to churn its way through the U.S. Senate, policy experts used an NCSL Base Camp 2021 session to detail some of the bill’s provisions—and its possible fate.
The session, “Federal Infrastructure Update: Will States Come Out on Top?”—moderated by Molly Ramsdell, director of NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Program—noted that infrastructure is no longer limited to concrete, girders and rivets.
Responding to an audience question about whether Congress had an agreed-upon definition of “infrastructure,” NCSL’s federal affairs counselor Ben Husch said, “The short answer is really ‘no.’ I really see it as more of a political question answered by members of Congress. You can point to the historical aspect of what has and hasn’t been included in infrastructure conversations, but the American Jobs Act had a lot of physical infrastructure combined with human infrastructure.”
“Bridges, public transportation, multi-modal projects, a substantial investment in aviation infrastructure, passenger and freight rail and inland waterways add up to nearly $300 billion of the $550 billion in new funding.” —Ben Husch, NCSL federal affairs counselor
NCSL’s Communications, Financial Services and Interstate Committee Director Abbie Gruwell added, “We see something like broadband that was not considered infrastructure but now we see internet connectivity as essential as being able to drive on a road.”
Transportation does get more than half of the $550 billion in new funding in the bill, Husch said.
“Bridges, public transportation, multi-modal projects, a substantial investment in aviation infrastructure, passenger and freight rail and inland waterways add up to nearly $300 billion of the $550 billion in new funding,” he said.
The bill maintains the core concept of formula funding so 90% of roadway funds are given to states via formula, and that is so important when it comes to infrastructure, Husch added.
“Large projects take months or years and if you as a state or local government don’t know what you’re getting from one year to the next, it can make it a lot harder to plan and build those infrastructure projects,” he said.
The bill allocates $65 billion aimed at closing the digital divide, including by improving internet affordability and service to low-income customers, Gruwell said.
“Much of the money is directed to states, which is great,” she said. “It establishes a $42.4 billion program for states and territories for expansion of broadband infrastructure construction, prioritizing rural and other underserved areas, including what they call anchor institutions, flagship institutions including schools, health care centers and libraries.
“States are permitted to use these funds for planning and building projects, including a low-cost broadband option. It also provides for research, which is so important and even things like training for employees of broadband offices. There is a minimum allocation of $100 million per state and territory and extends the emergency broadband benefit we saw during the pandemic in the form of an affordable connectivity program.”
Of the $75 billion the bill allocates for energy, “there is not an individual piece that’s going to jump out at you,” Gruwell said. “It includes everything from $15 billion for grid enhancement, some of which are formula funded for states, others awarded competitively to utilities; grants for transmission infrastructure, coupled with a loan package to help support construction of non-federal transmission lines; $500 million for energy conservation; $6 billion for battery research; $3.5 billion for DOE to support projects to help develop regional projects on carbon capture; $8 billion over five years to support hydrogen fuel production and just over $11 billion for abandoned mines reclamation fund for states and tribes.”
Handicapping the bill’s chances, Husch said he would place the bill on the 20-yard line, “just inside the red zone, getting close to a touchdown but still a bunch of things that could go wrong. It’s always easier to defend a smaller field. If, as looks likely, the Senate passes the bill before the August recess, I do see a strong chance this does become law this year.
“I do generally agree with those who feel the House doesn’t have that much leverage and doesn’t want to be seen holding up a $1.2 trillion bipartisan package heading into midterms where (Democrats) have a very small majority and history tends not to be kind to the president’s party. That could put a lot of pressure on the House to pass what makes it out of the Senate.”
Gruwell’s analysis is a bit more conservative, placing the bill at the 30-yard line.
“They got through a lot of hurdles,” she said, “but there’s still a long way to go.”
Mark Wolf is the senior editor of the NCSL Blog.