House Democrats are getting a head start on ensuring that federal funding in the bipartisan infrastructure package translates to shovels in the ground back home before next year’s midterms.
As the legislation remains tied up in disputes over the even larger social spending measure, a number of Democrats in competitive districts say they’re using the extended negotiation period to lobby transportation officials in their states so their preferred local projects get consideration once the House acts.
The infrastructure package is set to play a key part in Democrats’ message to voters in the 2022 elections, particularly for those in swing seats who’ll try to convince voters Congress is taking concrete actions to improve their lives in a time of economic and health-care anxiety driven by the pandemic. The surge in funding would spur construction in places the public notices, including highways, bridges, rail, and water projects.
Lawmakers designated more than 1,470 specific projects for their districts in the transportation bill the House passed earlier this year, but those earmarks were excluded from the compromise package the Senate crafted that’s awaiting House action. As a result, lawmakers are working to convey their priorities to state agencies, which will ultimately divvy up much of the $550 billion in new funding.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who successfully advocated for two bridge replacements along with other projects in the original House bill, said she’s been in touch with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for months but has stepped it up recently to be ready when the money is available.
“I’ll be hammering the Department of Transportation and others to get that money to our district,” she said. “I don’t want the first time they hear about my No. 1 project to be after they pass that bill because everyone is going to be working hard to get the money in their districts.”
Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) said it’s frustrating that House Democrats won’t have their specific projects in the final product, which included a light rail extension in the Minneapolis area. But he’s advocated for that and other projects at the state level to ensure they get funded.
“Voting yes on an infrastructure bill in Washington is 99 yards,” he said. “The final yard, and sometimes the longest, is getting it to the projects in the most need.”
The other challenge for lawmakers is making voters aware of what was included in the bill, said Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas). Allred, first elected in 2018, mentioned the Democrats suffering huge losses in the 2010 midterms despite then-President Barack Obama signing a $787 billion package to revitalize the economy after the recession.
Allred, who submitted several earmark requests, including one for the regional public transit agency, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, said he wasn’t concerned about whether projects would begin before the midterms. But, he added, touting a bill is always easier when lawmakers can point to specific projects underway.
“Most people didn’t know what it did,” Allred said of Obama’s stimulus bill. On the current infrastructure package, he said, “I certainly will try and tout everything that was done in it and how it’s helped my community.”
Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) said her current top priority is getting the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk. But she also wants those who voted for her to know she’s working to deliver for them.
“My constituents, they want to know what we advocated for when they elected us, when they made us the majority makers, that we’re getting it done for them,” she said. “Getting it passed into law is the most important thing, but we do need to get the money out there.”
Some of the numerous programs included in the infrastructure bill could take months or even longer to get running, according to transportation groups tracking the bill.
But other funding could get to projects much faster. The bill includes funding for several existing programs, such as the Highway Trust Fund, which provides the bulk of federal spending for highways and mass transit, with well-established pathways to get money to states and then be distributed to projects. That means it could only take a few months to reach projects and be available by spring or summer of 2022, said Dean Franks, senior vice president of congressional relations with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
“The good thing for the people who support this bill is ribbon cuttings usually happen at the beginning of the project,” he said. “They can go and do a lot of that stuff over the next year.”
The longer waits for funding will be for new programs established by the legislation, said Susan Howard, program director for transportation finance at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. She said the sheer amount of new discretionary funding proposed in the package was “a little overwhelming or daunting” and that the U.S. Transportation Department and Federal Highway Administration would likely need to bring on new staff or resources to manage the new programs.
“It’s incumbent upon us as state DOTs and others who will be recipients of the funding to demonstrate to the public what they have gotten from the investment,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org