US engineers applaud progress of historic $550bn infrastructure deal

US President Joe Biden’s coveted infrastructure deal cleared a hurdle this week when a bipartisan group of senators finally agreed an outline version of a $550bn law that would see historic levels of spending on roads, bridges, power, rail, public transit and water.

After weeks of tortuous negotiations, 17 Republican senators joined Democrats in a 67-32 vote on Wednesday (28 July) to proceed with the bill’s drafting. A similar effort the week before failed to get enough Republican senators on board to avoid a filibuster, sending lawmakers back to the negotiating table.

The focus now is on finalising the bill to put to Congress, where it would need at least 10 Republican votes to avoid the filibuster. This is not guaranteed because amendments to the bill could dissolve the fragile bipartisan coalition.

The outline deal chalks up a number of records. It makes the largest federal investment in public transit ever; the biggest federal investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak; the single biggest dedicated bridge investment since the interstate highway system was created; and the biggest investment in clean drinking water in American history.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which tracks the state of US infrastructure with its quadrennial report card, applauded Wednesday’s vote, calling the deal a "once-in-a-generation infrastructure package" that addressed most of the 17 categories criticised in its 2021 report card.

That found that the US was paying only about half its bill for adequate infrastructure, with dams, schools, roads, airports and transit systems all getting "Ds".

Tom Smith, ASCE’s executive director, said: "American voters want Congress to move forward with this plan that will keep roads, bridges, and our drinking water safe, bolster the economy, and help ensure communities are resilient. Our nation’s households don’t have time to wait while they continue to lose $3,300 a year due to unreliable, ageing infrastructure."

If the bill eventually passes, it would invest:

  • $110bn in roads, bridges, and major projects, and reauthorise the surface transportation programme for the next five years;
  • $73bn in upgrading ageing power infrastructure;
  • $66bn in rail to eliminate the maintenance backlog, modernise the Northeast Corridor and bring rail service to under-served areas;
  • $65bn in broadband infrastructure for high-speed internet;
  • $55bn in clean drinking water;
  • $40bn in bridge repair and rehabilitation;
  • $39bn in modernising rail and bus public transit;
  • $17.5bn in major projects that are too large or complex for traditional funding programs;
  • $11bn in road transport safety.

"This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function, deliver, and do big things," Biden said. "As we did with the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway, we will once again transform America and propel us into the future."

Image: Hundreds of roadways and bridges in Tennessee were damaged by the severe storms in May 2010 (Martin Grube/FEMA/Public domain)

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