President Biden's more than $1 trillion infrastructure plan provides an unseen-for-decades investment in U.S. transportation. But achieving its lofty goals could pose new challenges, which is something former President Obama knows well after partisan politics stymied some of his infrastructure ambitions.
“Infrastructure week,” the Trump administration tagline that became a standing joke for the lack of action in national political circles, has finally arrived. The Biden administration secured its first big non-pandemic legislative win with the passage of the more than $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“We did something that’s long overdue, that long has been talked about in Washington but never actually been done,” President Joe Biden said on November 6, the day after the House of Representatives passed the measure, officially known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in a late night marathon session.
The bill is a big boost to the U.S. transportation system. Roads and bridges get $110 billion, transit systems nearly $90 billion over five years, the long underfunded passenger rail system gets $66 billion, and airports another $25 billion.
“The historic levels of travel infrastructure investment provided by this act — including for airports, railways, highways, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and more — will accelerate the future of travel mobility,” said U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow. He added that the creation of a Chief Travel and Tourism Officer at the U.S. Department of Transportation will allow for coordination of travel and tourism policy across transportation modes.
But now that the bill has passed — no small hurdle amid the political machinations in Washington, D.C. — comes the challenge of putting the funds to work. One only needs to rewind a decade to the Obama-era stimulus bill that included billions of dollars for “shovel ready projects” to see how fraught implementation can be. Even with $8 billion available for high-speed rail projects around the U.S., Republican administrations in Florida and Wisconsin rejected funding for projects in their states.
Only today, a decade after Florida’s then-Governor Rick Scott turned down $2 billion in federal funds for an Orlando-Tampa rail line, is fast and frequent passenger rail in the corridor being studied again by private operator Brightline.
With lessons learned from the Obama administration’s experience and without the acute pressure of needing to add a quick jolt to the economy, the Biden administration can take a more methodical approach to infrastructure. In fact, the majority of funding will flow through existing federal formulas to states and localities that have discretion over how the dollars are spent. In other words, if Texas wanted to fund a highway widening project — ideally not one being challenged for civil rights violations — it can, or New York could use some of the funds to tear down an aging interstate in Syracuse.
But a sizable, yet undetermined chunk of the new infrastructure funding will be allocated by the Department of Transportation through competitive grant programs. And numerous entities, from Amtrak to the operator of the Los Angeles airport, are already queueing up for funds. Administration officials have indicated that they will favor projects that span multiple states, build new rail and other transit lines, or new integrated freight hubs, according to The Washington Post.
“We look forward to working with [Transportation] Secretary (Pete) Buttigieg, our state, commuter and host railroad partners … to rebuild and improve the Northeast Corridor and launch the next generation of Amtrak service in cities and towns across America,” said Amtrak Board Chair Tony Coscia of the infrastructure bill.
Amtrak is a big winner in the package. Much of the $66 billion in passenger rail funds will go to the national railroad to upgrade or expand the system, including $24 billion specifically for the busy Northeast Corridor that connects Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. A partnership between Amtrak, states and the federal government dubbed the NEC Commission released a pricey $117 billion plan to upgrade the line in July ahead of the then-expected passage of the infrastructure bill by the Senate.
The massive Gateway Program project is expected to win big from the package. The $14 billion project includes a new passenger rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York under the Hudson River, as well as associated infrastructure improvements to the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey. The project is expected to draw from both the passenger rail and transit pots in Biden’s infrastructure package.
But the vision for expanded passenger rail does not end at the fall line between New York and Washington. Amtrak has unveiled an ambitious 15-year plan, aptly named “Connects U.S.,” to expand rail in shorter, underserved corridors around the country. While many of these routes would require local and state support — something that the Obama administration experience shows could prove difficult along partisan lines — the vision could see the first passenger rail in decades come to corridors like Colorado’s Front Range, Atlanta to Nashville in the southeast, and Dallas to Houston in Texas.
“It sure seems to us that this is the moment,” Brightline CEO Michael Reininger said of the future for U.S. passenger rail in June. The private railroad resumed revenue service between Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida after a 20-month pandemic hiatus on Monday.
Brightline is building a 170-mile extension to Orlando that is set to open in 2022, and planning the aforementioned extension to Disney World and Tampa, Florida. The company is also putting together funding for its Brightline West high-speed rail line that would connect Las Vegas and Southern California. At the time, Reininger suggested that Brightline could seek federal infrastructure funds for both the Tampa and Las Vegas lines.
Amtrak, Brightline and other rail operators must wait for Department of Transportation approval to lay out guidelines for the funds it will distribute competitively before they can officially seek an infusion from the infrastructure bill.
Across the country, airports have been preparing projects for the possible influx of capital. Officials at Los Angeles International Airport, the second busiest in the U.S. before the Covid-19 crisis, recently signed off on a $6 billion expansion plan due for completion by the time the city hosts the 2028 Olympics. And the operator of Washington Dulles International Airport has cited the infrastructure package as a possible source of funds to replace an aging “temporary” concourse that dates from the 1980s.
“With air travel on the rise, America’s airports look forward to getting to work on hundreds of essential improvement projects that will expand the capacity of our terminals and runways,” said the airports trade group Airports Council International-North America CEO Kevin Burke.
But the funds may not prove to be as bountiful as hoped. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority CEO Jack Potter noted that, if the $25 billion is split evenly between every commercial airport in the U.S., it equals only “about $125 to $150 million per airport” — or a drop in the bucket for a multi-billion dollar expansion project like the new concourse at Dulles. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority operates Dulles and Washington Reagan National airports.
Of course, whether the Department of Transportation divides the funds equally across airports, or divides them up into a competitive grant pot and a formula pot remains to be seen.
“That is the opening scene that many people see when they come to the nation’s capital from around the world. It’s our capital’s international airport … and we’d like to see that improved.” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in October. He cited federal funding as one way to improve the airport, where United has a large hub, without damaging the “economics” of operating from Dulles.
Photo credit: Passenger rail operator Brightline could seek expansion funds from the new U.S. infrastructure bill. Brightline