Planes, a few trains, and a whole lot of automobiles: the US infrastructure bill explained
By Ariadna Guevara and Catherine Wood.
The US has decided to invest in itself. Will the 1.2 trillion dollar INVEST in America Act be enough? Americans are wondering: will it pay off?
On November 15, 2021, United States President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the INVEST in America Act, into law. The sweeping $1.2 trillion legislation had a long journey on Capitol Hill — with a first version introduced and passed in the House of Representatives in June, the bill moved to the Senate and, after many changes, was passed there with a 69-30 vote on August 10. The Senate version of the bill then needed to pass in the House before it could be signed into law by President Biden. After months of negotiations, the House finally passed the Senate version on November 5 with a 228-206 vote. Here, we outline what’s in the bill, why it matters, and what it could mean for Biden’s presidency.
What's in the bill?
In his remarks after the House passed the INVEST in America Act earlier this month, Biden outlined his vision for the legislation, calling it a “once-in-a-generation investment that’s going to create millions of jobs modernizing our infrastructure… [that will] turn the climate crisis into an opportunity. And it puts us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with China and other large countries and the rest of the world.”
The legislation is a major investment in U.S. infrastructure, with $550 billion in new funding, and another $650 billion in previously approved funding bringing the total to $1.2 trillion. Of the $550 billion, around $122 billion will go towards roads, bridges and transportation safety, including the new Safe Streets and Roads for All program that will fund projects to reduce the nation’s traffic fatalities, which have become a cause of concern recently. $40 billion of the transportation funding will go towards bridges, the largest dedicated bridge investment in 70 years. Another $25 billion will go towards airports. However, only $1 billion has been allocated to support reconnecting communities, particularly for minorities, whose neighborhoods have been bisected by highways over the years — a small fraction of the $20 billion originally proposed in the American Jobs Plan.
Another $105 billion will be invested in modernizing public transit ($66 billion) and improving passenger & freight rail ($39 billion). Passenger rail in the U.S. lags far behind that of European countries, so this is a necessary step that will support projects like the elusive Front Range railway, but it is not nearly enough.
As part of the bill’s climate change mitigation efforts, $15 billion will go towards increasing electric vehicle charging stations and investing in zero-emission buses and electric ferries. The bill allocates more than $100 billion towards modernizing the electrical grid and improving its resiliency, an important measure in light of increasingly common extreme weather events, which are occurring more frequently due to climate change, exerting even more pressure on the country’s already stressed power grids.
The INVEST in America Act also contains long-overdue investments in drinking & wastewater initiatives, including $55 billion to replace lead pipes nationwide, and $18 billion to address water contamination in the Great Lakes region and ports & waterways.
Finally, the bill provides $65 billion to support increased broadband internet access for Americans, giving one in four households a $30 monthly internet subsidy and helping the U.S. catch up to the internet speeds of other countries.
A bipartisan victory
In an America that has become highly polarized, the passing of this law is a bipartisan victory, and is the single largest infrastructure investment in U.S. history. Although the bipartisan nature of the law has been celebrated, the GOP is still calling on its party members to reprimand the 13 House Republicans and 19 Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, some of whom have received a plethora of death threats from within their constituencies because of their supporting votes.
When the INVEST in America Act passed in the Senate in August, it received broad bipartisan support, with all Democrats and 19 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY), voting in favor of it. Supporters included moderates with a track record of bipartisanship such as Sen. Susan Collins (R–ME) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R–UT).
Meanwhile, in the House, only 13 out of 213 Republicans voted for the bill, and 6 out of 221 Democrats voted against it. The 13 Republican representatives, many of whom come from swing states, were necessary for the bill to pass, though they may now face political backlash at the midterm elections next year. Six progressive Democrats, on the other hand, known colloquially as “the Squad,” voted against the bill because the Senate version no longer included the social policy measures that were present in Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, like paid leave, health care, climate action, and childcare.
On November 19, the Build Back Better Act, now separate from the INVEST in America Act, did pass in the House with a very narrow vote of 220-213. This was the first step to becoming law for this second bill, which includes an enormous $2.2 trillion in social policy and climate change measures. It now faces a long road in the Senate, and will likely need Republican support — if it does pass, combined with the infrastructure bill, it will be the most momentous, and progressive, domestic legislation since the New Deal.
What didn’t make the cut
In order to sign the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law, many concessions had to be made to the American Jobs Plan that was proposed in March 2021. The original $2.6 trillion investment was now shrunk down to $1.2 trillion, leaving out astronomical investments in public housing and education, home care, research and development, and clean energy tax credits. The original plan included $400 billion for in-home and community-based care and $387 billion towards investing in public housing, community colleges, public schools, and federal hospital buildings. It also included $566 billion towards research and development to combat climate change, create greener supply chains, and to fund research within historically black universities. The proposed $363 billion towards clean energy tax credits also did not make the cut. These are all areas in which the American BIPOC community is disproportionately disadvantaged and therefore remain highly politicized within party discourse, making it difficult to find compromises when it comes to allocating federal funds in these areas.
However, even the more traditional areas of infrastructure also bore some losses. Investments in roads, bridges, railways, public transit, electric vehicles, power and water infrastructure, and broadband internet access all lost a total of $371 billion.
The bigger picture
Rhetoric around this act has been centered on Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, in many ways implying that this law will contribute to the administration’s larger goal of not only recovering from the effects of Covid-19, but surpassing where the nation was prior to the onset of the pandemic. Central to Biden’s election campaign was the idea of creating a truly United States of America, and reversing the extreme polarization that pervades across the country through the overlapping divides between rural and urban communities, liberals and conservatives, as well as those that lie on opposite ends of the socio-economic scale within the nation’s economy.
His remarks as he signed the infrastructure bill into law echoed this:
"I promised that we couldn’t just build back to what it was before. We literally had to build back better… we’re the only country that’s always come out of great crises stronger than when we went in… The bill I’m about to sign into law is proof that despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver results."
Delivering these results is exactly what the American public is most concerned with. Many are not convinced that this historic deal could have a direct, tangible impact on their lives, and should the implementation of this law not be handled strategically and with vision, that may well be the case. The challenges include finding the right individuals to spearhead the implementation of the law, not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level as well. Moreover, these administrators must then find and coordinate the right skilled laborers to make these infrastructure plans come to fruition.
Should the INVEST in America Act hold true to its promises, the country will face a thorough transformation of infrastructure and potentially open up discussions over the inherent racial and ethnic discrimination that is at the bedrock of American infrastructure. As previously mentioned, the highway systems of many cities, such as Austin, Texas, were designed to segregate between the White and historically Black and Latino communities that called Austin home. Moreover, this racial component of infrastructure has contributed to a stigmatization of public transportation that makes many Americans hesitant regarding mass public transport endeavors. In order to create the sustainable and climate-friendly transportation infrastructure that the country needs, investing in public transport must go hand in hand with changing the prevailing attitudes towards the use of public transportation not only when it comes to intercity travel, but also within interstate travel.
There is no doubt that the INVEST in America Act is a bipartisan success for the Biden administration; however, the bill signed into law in November is a fraction of the president’s original plan. It remains to be seen just how quickly and effectively these funds will alleviate the burden of long-neglected infrastructure across the country. Additionally, with a narrow majority in the Senate, and a highly polarized House, it is dubious whether President Biden’s social policy bill will pass with its progressive measures on issues such as climate change, paths to citizenship, and paid leave. Whatever the outcome, it faces an arduous path to his desk.
For more information about just how bills become laws in the U.S., we recommend listening to this funky tune that every American elementary school student knows by heart: