As the Biden administration’s cabinet takes shape and Congress addresses some of the emergency requests called for by the White House, a clearer picture is emerging of the infrastructure sectors likely to receive attention this year in Washington, D.C.
Mass transit, aviation, passenger rail, and drinking water and wastewater treatment have all been the subjects of early legislative efforts on Capitol Hill. Waiting in the wings, meanwhile, is the pending reauthorization of the surface transportation program, representing a key opportunity for infrastructure advocates looking to boost federal support for highways, bridges, and highway safety efforts.
Confirming Pete Buttigieg
On Feb. 2, the Senate voted to confirm the nomination of Pete Buttigieg as secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has pointed to his mayoral experience as a main qualification for the job. Speaking before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Jan. 21, Buttigieg cited a public-private “smart streets” initiative that he helped implement in South Bend. The project “brought new life to our urban core and to the historically underserved West Side, revitalizing the downtown, redesigning streets, and spurring hundreds of millions in major economic investment,” according to Buttigieg’s written testimony submitted to the committee.
ASCE applauded the Senate’s confirmation of Buttigieg to lead the DOT. “We are eager to work with Secretary Buttigieg and the (DOT) to maintain and modernize our nation’s vital infrastructure systems, prioritizing sustainability and climate-resilience,” said Jean-Louis Briaud, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE, Dist.M.ASCE, the Society’s president, in a Feb. 2 news release. “We urge the administration to make investments in our nation’s transportation systems a central component of our nation’s economic recovery and a tool to bring equity to struggling communities.”
Transportation emerged as a key early priority for President Joe Biden. On Feb. 11, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Buttigieg met with a bipartisan group of senators from the Committee on Environment and Public Works to discuss transportation infrastructure legislation. A chief topic of discussion focused on the pending reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program, according to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the chair of the Senate EPW Committee and a participant in the Feb. 11 meeting. Extended by Congress for one year in September 2020, the surface transportation program is scheduled to expire on Sept. 30.
Reauthorizing the surface transportation program offers a way to modernize existing infrastructure while benefiting the economy and the environment, Carper maintained. “A surface transportation reauthorization bill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs to strengthen our economy, and move us to a cleaner, safer future,” Carper said in a Feb. 11 statement about the meeting. “I’m currently putting together a bipartisan bill that does just that, and I’m glad it’s at the top of the administration’s agenda.”
For its part, ASCE views the renewed focus on infrastructure as an extremely positive development, says Emily Feenstra, the Society’s managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives. “ASCE is pretty enthusiastic, along with the entire infrastructure community, on the opportunity we’re seeing to finally address some of our nation’s major infrastructure challenges,” Feenstra says. “Infrastructure investment seems to be a key tool in the toolbox for the federal government to jump-start economic recovery. We’re feeling very good about that.”
In 2021, ASCE will encourage Congress to advance three key objectives, Feenstra says. “One is preparing for a sustainable, resilient future with infrastructure investment,” she says. To this end, broader adoption of technical consensus-based standards is needed to strengthen infrastructure and improve public safety. “We know how to build infrastructure to withstand storms, to withstand the increasing effects of climate change,” Feenstra notes. “The tools are out there. Let’s incentivize state and local governments to use them.”
ASCE’s second objective involves prioritizing asset management and operations and management needs, Feenstra says. “The industry is getting a better sense of life-cycle costs in many different sectors,” she notes.
Finally, the Society will seek to restore a “strong federal partner in infrastructure investment,” Feenstra says. As states have moved to increase spending on transportation and other sectors, the federal government should “follow suit and make some bold investments,” she maintains.
The importance of transportation
Transportation, particularly mass transit, figures in Biden’s ambitious American Rescue Plan. Released by the White House on Jan. 20, the $1.9 trillion emergency proposal — which largely aims to address the COVID-19 pandemic and provide economic relief for individuals and communities — includes a request for Congress to provide “$20 billion in relief for the hardest hit public transit agencies,” according to the administration’s summary of its plan.
Responding to Biden’s plan, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure went even further, approving legislation on Feb. 10 that would provide $30 billion for transit agencies. What is more, the legislation would provide $8 billion for airports and $1.5 billion for Amtrak’s passenger rail service. “By approving this legislation, our committee is moving forward with providing much-needed relief to the millions of transportation workers and rural and urban communities alike that have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the committee chair, in a Feb. 11 news release.
However, the committee’s action was not without opposition. A key Republican on the committee accused its Democratic members of rushing to pass new emergency relief spending without waiting to see if similar funding approved in 2020 has had its intended benefits. “(We) haven’t seen the full effect of the trillions of dollars that Congress has approved,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in his written remarks prepared for the Feb. 10 hearing. “One reason is simply that not all of that money has gotten to the intended recipients yet.”
For example, Graves noted that Amtrak has yet to spend the $1 billion in emergency funding it received as part of a previous emergency spending package. Meanwhile, “of the $39 billion provided for transit, 60% hasn’t been spent,” Graves said. He also pointed out that airports had yet to receive the $2 billion in emergency funding passed in December. “That’s not surprising, as it’s been barely a month since Congress provided the last wave of assistance,” Graves said. Graves was referring to the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (H.R. 133), signed by then-President Donald Trump on Dec. 27.
On Feb. 12, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce passed its version of COVID-19 relief legislation. Among its provisions, the legislation would provide $500 million for the new Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Emergency Assistance Program, which was created by H.R. 133. As its name implies, the program assists households that are having difficulty paying their drinking water or wastewater bills. The $500 million would be in addition to the $638 million that originally was appropriated for the program, which is to be administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Water, wastewater, and the environment
For water and wastewater utilities, the $1.138 billion in potential funding for the assistance program represents a welcome source of financial support. However, the existing need continues to far exceed the demand, said Nathan Gardner-Andrews, the general counsel and chief advocacy officer of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, in a Feb. 11 statement. The “additional money comes nowhere near to meeting the financial needs facing millions of Americans right now who are struggling to pay water and sewer bills,” Gardner-Andrews said. “If Congress wants to help these vulnerable households and ensure water utilities can continue to provide their essential services, even more money is needed.”
The issue of environmental contamination resulting from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” arose during the Feb. 3 Senate EPW Committee hearing to consider the nomination of Michael Regan to be the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Regan, the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, was asked by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., if he would “make PFAS an agencywide priority at the EPA,” according to a transcript of the hearing provided by the EPW Committee.
In response, Regan said that PFAS “will be a top priority for this administration,” according to the transcript. “We will pursue discharge limits. We will pursue water quality values.” Asked by Gillibrand if he would set a drinking water standard for PFAS, Regan noted that he intends to “spend some time with the staff at EPA, with our counsel, to understand the multiple avenues I believe we have at our fingertips to address PFAS.”
The EPW Committee approved Regan’s nomination, which has yet to be voted on by the full Senate.