October 3, 2023

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Baton Rouge, recently recalled how, in negotiations on a massive federal infrastructure bill, he pushed for money to cap abandoned oil wells, a major issue in Louisiana. He was challenged by Rep. Joshua S. Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey.

Cassidy said he countered by asking why he should support more money for commuter trains, which was important in the Northeast. That was the moment, Cassidy said, when he and Gottheimer dropped their parochial positions. Neither lawmaker was going to get what his constituents wanted by discounting the needs of people in other parts of the country.

“It wasn’t horse trading,” Cassidy said. “It truly was an awareness that we are a big country and that in becoming familiar with issues that would benefit one area, we could all benefit.”

That bill became the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Now a year old, its provisions are starting to become clearer.

Congress had been working on legislation to improve the nation’s sagging infrastructure for years but couldn’t get anything passed. Compromises involving regionally specific needs generated enough votes for passage in a closely split Congress. President Joe Biden signed it into law on Nov. 15, 2021.

That’s one reason the legislation is 2,702 pages. The money is being spent over several years on thousands of projects that rebuild roads and bridges, expand access to clean drinking water, extend high-speed internet in underserved areas and upgrade seaports, airports and rail.

“The committee markup for the bill was a marathon session — lasting nearly 20 hours with more than 100 amendments and in-depth discussions,” recalls U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, the New Orleans Democrat who had just won a special election and was plunged into the fray as a member of the House transportation committee.

“This was a wild way to jump into my congressional service,” Carter said.

“Under President Biden ‘infrastructure decade’ is the headline,” said Mitch Landrieu, on the first anniversary of the infrastructure law. Presidents back to the 1990s had attempted but failed to get overall funding through Congress to repair and update the nation’s aging highways, bridges, ports and other infrastructure.

As White House Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator, the former New Orleans mayor oversees the infrastructure spending for the Biden administration. Landrieu said that in the first year, more than $185 billion has been spent on nearly 7,000 specific projects reaching 4,000 communities in all 50 states.

Brian Deese, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said infrastructure “literally lays the groundwork for private investments.” 

“This law is laying the foundation not only for an infrastructure decade, but for a manufacturing decade in America by building a stronger backbone for supply chains,” Deese said.

About $4 billion in funding has been announced and is headed to 120 specific projects in Louisiana. That includes more than $3.1 billion for transportation to invest in roads, bridges, public transit, ports and airports, and over $101 million for clean water. More than 341,000 households across the state already are receiving affordable internet with money from the act.

The state has 1,634 bridges and over 3,411 miles of highway rated in poor condition. Based on formula funding alone, Louisiana is expected to receive about $5.9 billion over five years in federal funding for highways and bridges.

But the first year was aimed at getting coordinators in each state and applications for specific projects going. “Next year will be as much about execution, execution, as this year was about planning and putting the teams in place,” Landrieu said.

Landrieu described two ways for locals to access the federal money. About 60% of the dollars go through the traditional pipeline to the states, where governors and their legislatures decide with local officials how to allocate the money. The second way is via competitive grants, in which local and governments apply for specific projects and vie for money distributed by the heads of the cabinet agencies that oversee specific issues.

The legislation was passed by a bipartisan coalition, but Cassidy was the only Republican from Louisiana to vote for the measure.

Some Republicans blame the spending in the infrastructure act – along with measures related to the coronavirus pandemic and global warming – for a spiking inflation rate that has driven prices higher for consumer goods.

Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, of Baton Rouge, says most of the infrastructure money is being sent to large states that primarily are run by Democrats. Louisiana isn’t getting its fair share, he argues.

“Pick your program, you’re going to see in every single one of them that Louisiana didn’t perform well,” said Graves, who sits on the House transportation committee.

Many people look only at the dollar amounts being sent, he said, and fail to follow the often-convoluted formulas that decide how much each state receives. He blames the prioritization criteria for disproportionately benefiting other states.

For instance, the existing standards used in ranking federal spending for local road projects include criteria such as “time saved in traffic” and “fuel used.” That criteria, already written into law, helped Louisiana successfully compete for federal dollars.

But for Infrastructure Act projects under the U.S. Department of Transportation, Secretary Pete Buttigieg added metrics such as beneficial impact on climate change, racial equity, environmental justice and enhancing labor union opportunities, Graves said.

Cassidy said that’s why it was so important to have a Louisiana representative in the middle of the negotiations. He said he ensured, for instance, that definitions added to the law steered money for expanding broadband to unserved or underserved communities, which covers the more than 400,000 Louisiana households without an internet connection.

Of the $65 billion for high-speed internet nationally, Louisiana will receive at least $100 million. Additionally, under the detailed legal definitions, as many as 869,000 households are eligible for a program that cuts internet bills by up to $30 per month.

Biden didn’t want anyone left behind, so special attention was paid to smaller communities that historically hadn’t received significant funding, Landrieu said. Citing orphan wells as an example, sparsely populated rural communities had long been unable to get comprehensive funding to close the sometimes leaky and often dangerous oil production equipment that been abandoned over the years. The law included requirements on population and how much money local governments must put up that were designed to allow low-income rural areas to qualify, he said. 

Landrieu said the premise of the year-old law is to make long-term, targeted investments that would benefit the nation’s economy. “The reality is this is just the beginning,” he added.

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