The passage of a major bipartisan infrastructure spending package in the House of Representatives last week was largely seen as a victory for President Joe Biden at a time when he desperately needed it.
But unlike some of Biden’s earlier legislative victories, it is unlikely to create immediate change in the lives of most Americans.
In the early months of his presidency, Biden was able to secure major stimulus packages that flowed cash directly from the federal government into the bank accounts of millions of Americans, many of whom were facing financial struggles because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The infrastructure package, which already faced fresh spending of $550 billion on the $650 billion budgeted, is not expected to work out that way. Analysts say the promise of investments in electric-vehicle charging stations, highways, ports, airports, broadband, a smart electrical grid and more will last for years rather than months.
“People think that since the bill is passed… that you are going to start seeing things this week. It is not that easy,” said former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and of engineering firm AECOM. KN Gunalan, a senior vice president said.
“Procurement on a specific project can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the magnitude and complexity of the project,” he told VOA. “I want people to be hopeful, but not too worried, because to get it right, these things take a while.”
‘A generational change’
Experts said the fact that it will take years to see the full effects of the new investment should not obscure the reality that it has the potential to significantly transform the country.
“It’s a generational shift in how and in what types of projects are invested,” Joseph Kane, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told VOA. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, with $550 billion over five years, that equates to New Deal-era levels of spending.”
The New Deal era was marked by a huge wave of government spending on infrastructure and other public projects intended to help bring the United States out of the Great Depression.
“Beyond the dollar figures, what is also important is what the bill promises to do, which is investing in forward-looking design and technology for a 21st century infrastructure approach,” Kane said.
‘The Decade of Infrastructure’
In the wake of the bill’s passage and the presidential signing ceremony expected for when Congress returns from its current recess, there have been a number of funny references to “infrastructure week”—something the Trump administration has been trying in vain to find a way around. postponed more than once. To get Congress to step up its previous efforts to make serious investments in infrastructure.
But Michael Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and director of state and local policy, said in an interview with VOA that the bill’s passage means the country needs to transition over a much longer time frame.
“Once this bill is signed, Infrastructure Week will become Infrastructure Decade,” Hendrix said. “I think we really have to look at a 10-year time horizon to get a great sense of the impact here. And even then, just because spending will go online, and projects will come online, doesn’t mean that They are going to expire within that 10 year time frame.
short term action
While no one should expect new bridges to start being built overnight, there will be some action in the near future – it will not be the kind most people see it.
The legislation, approved by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, gives Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg a pot of $16 billion that he will be able to direct projects with little or no delay. Hendrix of the Manhattan Institute said he expects much of it to go toward funding the initial study and plan, so that states and localities can begin preparing for when full funding begins to flow through the system.
Additionally, work on routine maintenance of existing infrastructure, which has sometimes been postponed for several years due to paucity of funds, can be started more quickly, former ASCE president Gunalan told VOA.
“I know it is easy to get excited about new projects, but agencies have struggled for years to keep their existing properties in good repair,” he said. “Maintenance of existing assets is probably something that can be done quicker than any new project going online.”
A number of major projects that are in the planning stage – for some years – could begin construction in the next few years, before the end of Biden’s first term in January 2025.
“I suspect in the next four years, we’ll start to see a lot of major infrastructure projects under construction — and people will see that build,” said Jonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington. .
Some of those projects, he said in an interview, were the Gateway Tunnel, a new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey; replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, a woefully cumbersome link between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati; a new railroad bridge over the Potomac River connecting Washington, DC and northern Virginia; and continuing work on the high-speed rail network in California.
“The next few years Americans will see all of those projects under construction,” Freemark said. “Unfortunately, we won’t see them open anytime soon.”
Biden will still promote the package
The delay between the signing of the infrastructure bill into law and the start of major construction projects will not stop the president from celebrating its passage. This week, he is expected to begin a series of tours across the country to sites that would benefit from the law.
Biden was vice president when President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an effort to stimulate the economy with increased investment in infrastructure projects. While the act generated significant expenditure on infrastructure, it took longer to implement than the administration expected.
The Obama administration didn’t do much to bring Americans’ attention to the Recovery Act projects when they came in line, leading to criticism from fellow Democrats who saw it as a missed opportunity.
Biden doesn’t seem eager to expose himself to the same criticism. His infrastructure visits will be supplemented by several cabinet secretaries across the country in the coming weeks and months, reminding voters about projects that, if not on the way, are at least on the way.
Biden’s first stop on Wednesday will be the Port of Baltimore. Backlogs at US ports have been blamed for current supply-chain problems, which have made it difficult for Americans to find many goods and contributed to a sharp increase in inflation. The port visit would allow Biden to argue to Americans that his administration is at least taking action to begin addressing the problem.