Congressional debate on the massive new infrastructure legislation President Joe Biden has proposed is a “big glorious mess,” said Jason Jordan, director of public affairs at the American Planning Association, during their virtual national conference.
President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which is called the American Jobs Plan, calls for spending $2.2 trillion over the next 8 years. Some $620 billion would go to funding improvements to roads, bridges, public transit, rails, ports, waterways, and new electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. $115 billion of that would go to modernizing 20,000 miles of highways, roads, and main streets, along with another $20 billion for road safety. $100 billion would be for improving water infrastructure.
The plan defines infrastructure much more broadly than just roads and bridges and includes social, technological, educational, and economic infrastructure. Biden asks for another $400 billion for home care services and workforce development, $300 billion for manufacturing, $213 billion for housing, $100 billion for broadband infrastructure, $100 billion for new schools, $180 billion for research and development, and $100 billion for workforce development. To pay for these priorities, Biden calls for increasing the corporate tax from 21 percent to 28 percent and setting minimum corporate taxes.
Jordan asked a panel he assembled tough questions like: “Will budget reconciliation be used to fund the infrastructure investments? Will Biden’s infrastructure proposals be bound up in transportation legislation re-authorization? Will the financing mechanisms for these infrastructure proposals be increased corporate taxes, user fees, or gas taxes?”
Sam Mintz, a transportation reporter with Politico, said “there’s a high level of uncertainty around infrastructure, because there are unprecedented and vast policy changes proposed.”
“Republicans have made a much smaller counter-proposal that would just focus on transportation, water, and broadband infrastructure. They would finance this investment with increased infrastructure user fees rather than corporate taxes,” he explained.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which passed in 2015, and then was extended through this year, adds another element to Congressional deliberations on transportation. A number of bills are being developed in committees to replace the FAST Act. “Biden may bounce off the baseline re-authorization of transportation spending or spend more on top of this bill,” Mintz said.
He also believes that budget reconciliation, which is a way to get past the 60 votes required for legislation in the Senate, is likely to be used given the “progressive climate components” of Biden’s infrastructure plans.
For Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs at ASLA, the debate on transportation infrastructure is personal. “I grew up in West Baltimore, a once vibrant working-to-middle class community, which is now called an underserved community. Like many former industrial cities, Baltimore encountered some severe challenges — from the loss of factories and their blue collar jobs, to white flight, urban decay, and so called ‘urban renewal,’ and increased crime.” West Baltimore now has “rows of abandoned houses, vacant lots, food deserts, deserted and decrepit playgrounds and parks, ineffective public transit — and yes – a highway to nowhere – that replaced blocks and blocks of homes and Black families.”
Equity and climate change now guide ASLA’s advocacy efforts. Recently, the organization has sent its comprehensive set of policy recommendations to the Biden-Harris administration, relevant departments and agencies, and Congressional committees. ASLA then sent a second set of transportation recommendations to Capitol Hill on re-authorizing the FAST Act.
According to Blackwell, landscape architects are focused on increasing equitable access to safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, such as Complete Streets; transit-oriented development; and green infrastructure. “We also strongly believe that parks are infrastructure, and have not been elevated in the conversation as much as they should be. Parks are a critical part of the social fabric.”
She called for a broad-based collaboration between planning and design organizations and local community groups to transform inequitable elevated highways — which destroyed diverse urban communities as part of “urban renewal” — into green, surface-level boulevards. “This is a no brainer and something the nation needs to do. It can be the first step in atonement.”
And this is where Blackwell believes the resurgence of Congressional earmarks presents a real opportunity. Congressional committees are being more inclusive in their earmark review process and asking for proposals directly from community groups. “So this is not just about capital investment but also about community engagement. These community groups — and our grassroots network of landscape architects — can now advocate for specific projects in specific places. It’s a huge opportunity for our members to address environmental injustices.”
There may also be new opportunities on climate change-related measures in Biden’s proposals. “While the terminology may be different — the Democrats say climate change, and the Republicans talk about resilience — the message is the same and there is a new willingness to work on these issues. Climate change, and nature-based solutions, are now part of the conversation,” Blackwell said.
Mintz said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who was determined to make President Barack Obama a one-term president, can be expected to be recalcitrant towards any new major investments on mitigating or adapting to climate change. Biden’s infrastructure proposal is “probably the only climate bill we will get — it’s the chance for climate action before the mid-term elections next year.” He added that “climate change may be used as a cudgel” by Republicans in the mid-terms.
Blackwell argued that senators and representatives need to “listen to their constituents who have been flooded, seen their backyard on fire, or experienced drought. There will be a political price to pay for more theater.”
Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on EV infrastructure. “Republicans see this as giving a big gift to China, as EV batteries are produced there, and there isn’t a domestic U.S. battery industry,” Mintz said. But he noted that President Biden has been talking about 500,000 EV charging stations since the very early days of his campaign so is not expected to compromise on this policy area.
Blackwell said that ASLA is focused more on building out safe, accessible bike and pedestrian infrastructure so as to reduce the number of short trips taken in vehicles. “We need complete streets for everyone.”