What the Infrastructure Plan Does for the Environment
The $1.2 trillion plan doesn’t just include investments in roads and bridges; it’ll also focus on bike lanes, wildfire mitigation, and dam removal
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The American public, and our public lands, wild places, and natural resources, just got a major win. On November 5, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act with bipartisan support. Here’s what that $1.2 trillion investment will do for our environment.
What Is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act?
President Biden’s goal of making a once-in-a-generation investment in the country’s infrastructure—simultaneously pulling the economy out of the recession created by the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning to reduce greenhouse emissions, repairing the long-neglected physical foundations of our infrastructure, and starting to harden our country for the effects of climate change—has been split into two parts.
This first bill was intended to attract bipartisan support, hopefully giving Republican lawmakers permission to end the obstructionism that’s plagued the legislature for the last decade, while investing in so-called “hard infrastructure”: roads, bridges, the power grid, and stuff like that. It passed the House on November 5 after previously being approved by the Senate with broad bipartisan support, even including that of minority leader Mitch McConnell. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will invest $1.2 trillion across the next five years, $550 billion of which is new spending.
A second, larger spending package, the Build Back Better Act, is designed to pass Congress with only Democrat votes, using a budget reconciliation process that circumvents the filibuster. Its contents are the subject of intense debate, but it currently contains a much larger investment in clean energy projects, as well as “social infrastructure” projects designed to provide quality of life improvements for America’s workforce. A Senate vote on Build Back Better is expected the week of November 15. If it passes, the White House estimates that the two bills together will create 1.5 million jobs a year, each year, for the next decade.
But passing the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act itself is a major accomplishment. Here’s everything you need to know about it and what the $550 billion in new investments guarantees.
Who’s Paying for It?
Legislators responsible for the bipartisan bill designed it to reappropriate money that already exists elsewhere in the federal budget. How it does that is complicated, pulling unused money from COVID-19 relief budgets, authorizing state and local authorities to use funds in new ways, and taking advantage of numerous other arrangements. But, while the bill represents a historic investment in the future of our economy, an objective analysis conducted by the Congressional Budget Office found that it will add $256 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade. Democrat efforts to raise taxes on the richest Americans and heavily polluting industries simply failed to draw support from their GOP colleagues.
What’s in It?
Roads, bridges, and major projects: $110 billion
This money will fund a grant program designed to address our most at-need critical infrastructure projects, repairing and replacing roads, bridges, and the like.
Passenger and freight rail: $66 billion
Most of this money will go to addressing Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, incurred during Hurricane Sandy way back in 2012.
Safety: $11 billion
The bill will begin funding new highway and pedestrians safety programs, while also addressing vulnerable pipelines.
Public Transit: $39.2 billion
The Department of Transportation estimates it’s behind on repairs and maintenance for 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 bus and train stations, thousands of miles of rail track, and associated power systems. This will help with those repairs while also investing in new, clean transit options and enhancing accessibility.
Broadband: $65 billion
It’ll expand broadband access and speeds nationwide, including to rural communities.
Ports and waterways: $16.6 billion
The Act will bring major ports and waterways up to date on maintenance, reduce their emissions, and begin hardening them for rising sea levels and more severe storms.
Water infrastructure: $55 billion
This is a big one. It’ll replace all lead pipes still serving drinking water to homes and businesses, addresses Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) pollution in drinking water supplies, and invest $3.5 billion to expand access to clean drinking water for Indigenous communities.
Power and grid: $65 billion
In an effort to support clean energy development, $65 billion will go to repairs and upgrades on transmission lines.
Resiliency: $47.2 billion
Importantly, this bucket of funding meant to address critical weaknesses includes money for flood and wildfire mitigation, drought preparation, ecosystem restoration, and weatherization. This will be an important source of funding for public lands.
Clean school busses and ferries: $7.5 billion
The government will begin to replace the nationwide fleet of school buses with zero emissions, battery electric alternatives that must be sourced from American suppliers. It’ll do the same for ferries.
Electric vehicle charging: $7.5 billion
The bill will expand the nationwide network of EV charging stations to rural, disadvantaged, and hard-to-reach areas.
Reconnecting communities: $1 billion
It will take a step toward environmental justice by removing or working around legacy infrastructure that divided and segregated mostly marginalized and low-income communities in urban areas.
Addressing legacy pollution: $21 billion
It’ll clean up brownfield and superfund sites, like abandoned mines and orphaned gas and oil wells—all while creating new jobs to perform those tasks.
Western water infrastructure: $8.3 billion
This money will go to the Bureau of Reclamation, and is intended to help drought-related water supply issues along the Colorado River and across western states.
Some of Its Most Exciting Projects
That is a lot of money, directed in some necessarily very broad ways. Various grants, associated legislation, and the heads of the agencies responsible for specific areas will ultimately determine precisely how to spend the money. And it’ll take months, or even years, to figure out which exact programs are going to spend which bucket of money, and how. There are a few specific programs that will benefit the environment and the outdoor recreation industry right from the beginning.
Bikes, Bikes, Bikes
Bicycles are mentioned 62 times in the bill’s 2700 pages. There’s money for everything from beacons that will allow cyclists to alert self-driving vehicles of their presence, to new and expanded bike lanes, to traffic lights that include a specific phase for cyclists.
It’ll also fund a viability study for a new program designed to equip and train first responders to use bicycles to reach those in need during natural disasters. The thinking is that bikes may be one of the few types of vehicle that could navigate damaged roadways in urban areas following events like hurricanes and earthquakes, and that a force of two-wheeled paramedics and search and rescue teams could reach and find victims, and provide them with essential supplies in the immediate aftermath.
And, a term I’m seeing for the first time here is “Active Transportation Infrastructure,” which proposes an investment in region-wide travel infrastructure that could cohesively encourage commuters to make at least part of their journey by bike.
The act sets aside $400 million for the express purpose of dam removal, 15 percent of which goes to Indigenous communities. This should be an interesting one to watch play out across the West, where environmentalists have spent the last several decades advocating for the removal of everything from small impediments to fish passage, all the way up to punching holes in the Glen Canyon Dam and restoring 169 miles of the Colorado River’s original path through what is now Lake Powell.
There’s another $250 million set aside for road and trail restoration on National Forest land. This will also help fish by removing any barriers to their travel that may have been created by roads and trails.
The bill provides $178 million for wildfire mitigation projects on DOI lands, and $514 million will be spent performing wildfire mitigation on Forest Service land. Both agencies receive another $225 million for burned area recovery activities on lands they each manage.
$500 million will be issued in grants to local communities for their own wildfire defense projects.
Notably, the Act establishes a categorical exemption for mitigation projects, allowing them to proceed without first passing a time-consuming National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
An $80 million investment will allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop new super computer modeling tools to help them precisely forecast events like wildfires, droughts, and floods. And an additional $100 million will be spent on the hard infrastructure systems that feed data to NOAA’s prediction models.
National Park Service Maintenance Backlog
When it was last calculated in 2018, the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog stood at nearly $12 billion. Since that time, the park service has faced challenges like the pandemic, a government shutdown, extreme weather events caused by climate change, and massive wildfires. We still haven’t calculated where the backlog now stands post-Trump, but this infrastructure bill is going to put a major dent in that number regardless.
Over the next five years, the Act pumps $1.73 billion into repairing roads and bridges in national parks. Not only will this money significantly improve the safety and efficiency of roads in the parks, but it will allow more money from existing budgets to be spent elsewhere, repairing buildings, and shoring up natural infrastructure, too.