Bipartisan Deal Would Only Meet Some of Nation’s Infrastructure Needs

Experts say the details of the spending will matter — and that, in some areas, more money will be needed to fix beleaguered roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

WASHINGTON — There’s enough money in the bipartisan infrastructure deal to replace all the lead pipes in America, White House officials say, but not nearly enough to repair every road and bridge that the nation’s civil engineers argue needs fixing.

#styln-signup {
max-width: calc(100% – 40px);
width: 600px;
margin: 20px auto;
border-bottom: 1px solid #e2e2e2;
min-height: 50px;

#styln-signup.web {
display: none;

#styln-signup + .live-blog-post::before {
border-top: unset !important;

[data-feedpub-type=”LIVE_BLOG”] #styln-signup,
[data-feedpub-type=”FACT_CHECK”] #styln-signup {
border-bottom: none;

Administration officials say there is enough money to build out 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country, but they concede there is not enough to fully power a national transition away from fossil fuels and toward a lower-pollution transportation sector.

The agreement that President Biden struck this week with a bipartisan group of senators would be the largest investment of new federal infrastructure funds since 2009, offering huge potential but also limitations given its scope.

America’s road, bridges and sewers have long been in need of repair, with engineers, economists and business and local leaders pleading for the federal government to prioritize such projects to ensure the nation can thrive in the global competition of the 21st Century economy. The bipartisan deal could be the largest step in decades toward meeting those needs, and it was quickly celebrated by many champions of infrastructure investment.

Whether it could prove to be a transformational upgrade that modernizes the U.S. economy and positions the country to compete for global leadership will depend on the details that lawmakers flesh out in the weeks to come, experts say.

In some areas, the impact could depend on Democratic efforts to pass a companion bill, without Republican votes, packed with more aggressive measures to support and train workers and drive a transition to a low-carbon energy sector.

“This is a massive step in the right direction toward making long-term investments in American infrastructure,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution who specializes in infrastructure policy. But, he added, “the only way we can match our historic highs in federal investment is if we nearly double this amount.”

The prospect of a second infrastructure bill this year could add billions — or even trillions — more in spending on areas such as renewable energy, along with so-called human infrastructure like education and worker training. That stand-alone effort, which Mr. Biden has said is central to his agenda, threatens to scuttle the bipartisan deal before it makes its way to legislative text. Republicans, including those who helped strike the bipartisan framework announced on Thursday, publicly and privately expressed frustration after Mr. Biden told reporters he would only sign the agreement if it was accompanied by a second, more expansive bill that was unlikely to draw any Republican votes.

That caveat was born out of political necessity: Progressives within Mr. Biden’s party had made clear for weeks that they would only accept the bipartisan bill with the promise of that more ambitious bill, which could invest in anti-climate-change programs, child care, home care, and an expansion of Medicare benefits.

The bipartisan agreement would increase federal infrastructure spending by $579 billion over a period that encompasses expected spending and maintenance. That amount falls short of estimates by some economists and business groups of what is needed to repair America’s aging roads, bridges, water pipes and other traditional physical infrastructure.

The most recent estimate by the American Society of Civil Engineers finds that the nation’s roads and bridges have a $786 billion backlog of needed repairs. The Business Roundtable, which represents corporate chief executives in Washington, has in recent years called for $1 trillion to shore up infrastructure. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called for $1.5 trillion.

Mr. Tomer and colleagues at Brookings have pushed for the federal government to increase infrastructure spending by about $200 billion a year, which would be in line with historical highs in the 1970s. The agreement reached this week would get the government about halfway to that goal. On Friday, Mr. Tomer estimated that the deal would suffice to expand broadband access to 50 percent to 75 percent of the Americans who cannot currently access high-speed internet at home.

White House officials say the details of the deal are targeted to the particular needs of the nation in this economic moment and that it has the potential to create millions of good-paying jobs and accelerate economic growth. They point to such things as spending on modernizing the electrical grid, expanding transit and improving rail service, reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions and building a national network of charging stations as investments that could hasten the transition to an electrical vehicle fleet.

“It would be the largest investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century, addressing key priority areas that have not seen enough investment now for the years,” David Kamin, a deputy director of Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council, said in an interview.

An unpaved road in Kanawha Falls, W. Va. The infrastructure bill’s proposed spending falls short of estimates by some groups of what is needed to repair America’s roads and bridges.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Administration officials and congressional negotiators have not released a granular breakdown of the spending provisions in the plan, only a framework published by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona and a key negotiator.

Lawmakers have announced broad spending categories for the new funds. That includes $110 billion for roads and bridges; $66 billion for passenger and freight rail and $65 billion for broadband internet, though that includes some money already allocated in the stimulus package Democrats approved in March. The deal also includes $55 billion for water infrastructure; $49 billion for public transit and a combined $15 billion for electric vehicles, including charging stations and buses.

Paul P. Skoutelas, the president of the American Public Transportation Association, a lobbying group, said the infrastructure deal was a step in the right direction and that the “first look at the funding levels appears significant.”

But he added that the country’s public transit systems would still not be fully modernized through the deal. There is a $176 billion backlog for transit investments, a deficit that is expected to grow to more than $250 billion through 2029, according to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, an advocacy group, said the infrastructure deal appeared significant but that the lack of details made it difficult to understand how, exactly, the funds would be used.

“You can spend a trillion dollars in highways and not spend a dime on repair. So seeing something titled ‘Highways’ with a number by it doesn’t tell me what will be repaired so I can’t answer whether this is enough,” Ms. Osborne said.

She added that she was disappointed to see some initiatives in Mr. Biden’s original infrastructure proposal scaled back, such as the amount of funds dedicated to “reconnecting communities” by removing freeways or other past infrastructure projects that ran through Black neighborhoods and other communities of color. While Mr. Biden’s jobs plan proposed investing $20 billion for a new program that would “reconnect” communities of color to economic opportunity, the bipartisan deal proposes $1 billion in new spending.

On Friday, White House officials said they were pleased with how the surface transportation funding in the deal was divided, with about half of the money supporting vehicular travel and the rest going to transit and rail. That is a departure from the traditional Washington practice of more heavily funding highways. They noted that negotiators were still hashing out details on the amount of money that would be devoted to repairing roads, as opposed to building new ones, and said repairs continued to be Mr. Biden’s top priority for that spending.

The bipartisan deal will also allow Mr. Biden to create new spending programs, including ones focused on carbon reduction and advancing racial equity, that would likely not be allowed under the rules of the budget reconciliation process that Democrats will try to use to push their larger infrastructure bill.

“We have prioritized infrastructure that benefits low-income communities, disadvantaged communities, and that advances our climate goals by reducing the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions,” said Samantha Silverberg, a special assistant to the president for transportation and infrastructure policy. Some of those investments, she said, are “smaller dollar figure, but potentially big impact to the community.”