The Senate approved a sweeping $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on Tuesday that includes a substantial increase in funding for roads, broadband and energy usage, marking a major step forward in President Joe Biden’s economic agenda as the nation continues to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The vote was 69-30, with 19 GOP senators joining Democrats following months of negotiations.
“Today, the Senate takes a decades-overdue step to revitalize America’s infrastructure and give our workers, our businesses, our economy, the tools to succeed in the 21st century,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “The bill will make large and significant differences in both productivity and job creation in America for decades to come.”
With its massive price tag adding $550 billion in new spending, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would upgrade the nation’s power grid, further efforts to fight climate change and start the removal of lead pipes that contaminate water supplies.
Although the Biden Administration has lobbied for the bill—which would add more than $250 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office—it contains only a fraction of the money the President requested for major environmental and community-based initiatives, and does not include clean energy tax credits and investments in in-home care. Democrats will have a second chance at those proposals when they take up a larger but more partisan $3.5 trillion bill in the coming months that is expected to draw zero Republican votes and clear the Senate through a procedural loophole that removes the typical requirement for legislation to draw support from 60 of the 100 Senators.
The bipartisan bill now heads for a vote in the House, where it faces an uncertain future. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she won’t bring this bill up for a vote without the larger Democratic bill alongside it. Progressives are signaling they aren’t going to settle for compromise, and Democrats have little room for error. But if the bipartisan bill passes there, it is expected to be signed into law by Biden, whose top advisers have been involved in the marathon negotiations.
Here’s a look at six major elements of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Physical infrastructure repairs
The biggest sum of money is directed towards repairing the nation’s roads and bridges, which face a $786 billion backlog of investment needs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Under the plan, $110 billion in new federal funding is set aside for physical infrastructure, with a focus on climate change mitigation and safety measures, including cyclist and pedestrian protections.
After a year of extreme heat, drought and wildfires, lawmakers pushed for measures to ensure the nation’s roads and bridges are able to withstand severe climate conditions, having seen roads in the Pacific Northwest buckle and crack during last month’s historic heat wave. The White House estimates that around 20%, or 173,000 miles, of the country’s highways and major roads are in poor condition, as are more than 45,000 bridges.
The bill also establishes a federal program designed to reconnect communities divided by transportation infrastructure, such as the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans, which runs through a predominantly Black neighborhood. Although Biden sought $20 billion for this program, the approved legislation only includes $1 billion over five years. Another $2 billion grant program will expand roads, bridges and other surface transportation projects in rural areas.
Clean energy makeover
The bill provides $73 billion to expand clean energy sources and modernize the nation’s aging electricity grid with new transmission lines—the single largest investment in clean energy transmission in American history.
Following the deadly Texas power outages earlier this year, the bill creates a new Grid Deployment Authority within the Department of Energy to finance and encourage the development of high-voltage transmission lines that can better handle disruptions to local power-generating abilities. New transmission lines will also be used to transport renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal to rural communities, expediting the adoption of clean energy sources.
As part of the bipartisan compromise, the bill only includes $7.5 billion to develop electric vehicle charging stations across the country—which is half of what Biden requested, and will likely not be enough to deliver on his campaign pledge of building 500,000 stations. An additional $7.5 billion goes toward upgrading school buses and ferries to use electric power.
Closing the ‘digital divide’
For years, policy experts have insisted on fixing the gaps in broadband Internet access. The pandemic has only amplified these equity concerns, as much of the nation continues to work from home, receive healthcare remotely and learn online. In an attempt to close the digital divide, the package includes $65 billion to connect rural areas and low-income communities to high-speed internet. The agreement also passes the Digital Equity Act, legislation drafted by Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, to authorize funding for digital inclusion programs, such as Internet education and skills training for low-income populations.
The White House estimates that more than 30 million Americans live in areas that lack broadband infrastructure to provide minimally acceptable speeds.
Lead pipe replacement
The legislation allots $15 billion for lead pipe replacement, though water sector leaders argue it will cost an additional $45 billion to replace all lead pipes and service lines across the country. Democrats and Republicans have touted efforts to clean up water sources for years, sparked by the lead crisis in Flint, Mich. that started in 2014 and drew international attention on the long-term effects of lead exposure. In some Baltimore public schools, water fountains are still banned due to high levels of lead in the pipes.
Up to 10 million American households and 400,000 schools and child care centers lack safe drinking water, according to the White House.
Under transportation spending, the bill authorizes the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago. Some $66 billion will eliminate the Amtrak maintenance backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor and expand rail service in high-potential areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic.
Amtrak, which is a state-owned, for-profit enterprise, reported a net loss of $875 million in 2019, and has lost money every year in its history, but federal subsidies and payments from states have allowed the agency to remain in service.
Public buses, subways and trains will also receive $39 billion, which will be used to repair and replace aging infrastructure and expand transit service to underserved areas. It is the largest federal investment in public transit in history.
Elsewhere in the package, lawmakers included some novel efforts to improve safety. The bill orders the Transportation Department to figure out what technologies can be deployed to prevent drunk driving, such as passive in-car breathalyzers, eye scans and motion sensors. Public-safety advocates also secured a review of whether crash-test dummies prioritize middle-aged men’s safety over those of women, the young and the old.
Republicans recognized early that they would pay a political price for standing lockstep against the plan. Seventeen of them agreed to allow debate to begin on the process with the understanding they could add amendments to the package for their own pet projects.
Tacking on amendments gave lawmakers like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz the ability to defend the plan at home by noting he won specific highway spending for his state. Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer secured a requirement that the government make a map showing where new broadband spending was going. Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis won a mandate for the Transportation Department to study who is using highways and at what cost.
Democrats saw the tweaks as a way to ensure Biden wouldn’t be called out for blocking Republican input. After all, it wasn’t politically painful for Democrats to give South Dakota Sen. John Thune a win on safety improvements for telecom workers to perhaps combat a labor shortage.