After months of haggling, the House of Representatives on Friday evening passed a major federal infrastructure bill that promises to inject $1.2 trillion over the next five years into supporting trains, planes, automobiles, utility networks, and energy systems. The legislation has been pared down from its original and more ambitious form, when it was worth $2.3 trillion. But it’s still very big, says Adie Tomer, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “This bill is enormous in terms of top line numbers, it’s enormous in breadth, and it has a clearer sense of purpose than we’re used to seeing in infrastructure bills,” he says. The bill is stuffed with schemes and plans that, because it runs to 2,700 pages, have still managed to fly under the radar. For those who don’t have a few spare hours to flip through it, here’s a cheat sheet—a few very important provisions that could change how Americans live.
More Money for Walkers, Cyclists, and Scooter-ers
For the past half-century, the federal government has shoveled money toward roads and bridges that support cars and trucks. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (that’s its formal name) ups investment in “active transportation” by sending $1.44 billion each year to community projects aimed at pedestrians, cyclists, and others using non-motorized transport. That’s 70 percent more money than the same program got in the last big bill. The money can go toward maintaining or building bike lanes, sidewalks, and trails. Another $200 million program could help connect different communities’ trails to eventually create a nationwide network that allows anyone to get around without a car. The funding could, for example, go toward a long-simmering vision called the Circuit, which is today a 100-mile trail network between Philadelphia and southern New Jersey but could eventually span 800 miles. But Congress will have to appropriate that money annually in budget bills. “It’s a fantastic milestone, as far as we’re concerned,” says Kevin Mills, the vice president of public policy at the Rails to Trails Conservancy, an advocacy group.
“Record-breaking” Funding for Transit
The bill includes $89.9 billion in funding for public transit, including $39 billion to modernize systems, rather than building new ones. The White House is hyping this as “the largest federal investment in public transit in history.” Transit agencies could use the help, as both their workers and ridership continue to suffer from pandemic-related downturns, and maintenance backlogs are growing. In Washington, DC’s Metro, lax maintenance is reportedly at the root of a derailment and subsequent system-wide upheaval that took 40 percent of its railcars out of service. Advocates aren’t sure it’s enough. After inflation, “the ‘record level of investment’ might just be the status quo, or even less than what it should be,” says Benito Pérez, the policy director at Transportation For America, a progressive advocacy group. Roughly 80 percent of the money in the bill goes to highway-focused funding, he points out. That has “implications for the climate, implications for safety, implications for providing meaningful access to all users,” he says.
The legislation directs $65 billion toward internet connectivity and access, a pain point that became especially apparent when many American families turned to the internet for work and school during the pandemic. A big chunk of that, $42.45 billion, will be parceled out as grants to states, which can use the funds to collect data on broadband needs, create plans to address them, and pay telecom companies to increase access. Another chunk, $14.2 billion, will give $30 monthly vouchers for internet service to low-income Americans, replacing a $50 a month voucher program that applied to fewer people. “This is the first comprehensive investment in America’s broadband needs,” says Tomer, the Brookings Institution researcher. “I think that will be an unquestionable part of its legacy.”
Steeling the Country Against Climate Change
Another piece of legislation, the hotly contested “Build Back Better” plan still making its way through Congress, is supposed to be the Biden administration’s big push against climate change. But the infrastructure bill contains enough climate resiliency money to make it the country’s largest climate-focused piece of legislation so far. It dedicates $154 billion to climate programs, according to a Brookings Institution tally. There’s a new program written expressly to create resilient infrastructure—roads, subways, and bridges that can resist the extreme heat, cold, and storms of a changing climate. There’s $5 billion for electric school buses and $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which the White House has said will help fund 500,000 public electric vehicle charging stations by 2030. There’s $65 billion to fix and improve the electric grid. Climate activists say the effort doesn’t go nearly far enough, especially after the Build Back Better bill has been curtailed, too. But it’s a start.
A Shift in Funding Philosophy
This one is wonky, but important. In general, federal infrastructure funding gets sent to states and local governments through “formulas,” which are based on factors like population and gas-tax revenue. But some $120 billion of the $550 billion in new federal spending in this bill will get distributed through competitive programs. That gives Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other officials greater leeway in choosing which projects get money and Congress more power of oversight. Experts expect the change to lead to an uptick in ambitious mega projects, like the Hoover Dam, which require both money and interstate cooperation. The upside could be more experiments and innovation, says Tomer. “It’s really going to push states and localities to bring their best ideas.”