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Biden eyes infrastructure package to help economic, climate goals

Biden eyes infrastructure package to help economic, climate goals
© Greg Nash

The Biden administration is eyeing a major infrastructure package as a way to boost the economy and advance its climate priorities, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle eager for progress after four years of fits and starts under President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE

Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the nations crumbling roads and bridges are badly in need of repairs, but those bipartisan sentiments werent enough to get a trillion dollar spending bill across the finish line during the Trump administration.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has created an opening for large spending bills, and infrastructure proponents are hoping there will be momentum for legislation early next year to help the faltering economy.

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While such legislation would aim to fund typical road and bridge projects, Democrats are likely to push for bigger investments in clean energy, transit, broadband and more that were laid out in Bidens campaign proposals.

But those ambitions could be hamstrung by the GOPs renewed interest in battling the deficit, particularly if Democrats eye a transportation bill as a form of fiscal stimulus.

Now its time to either raise the user fee or deficit spend, and if youre opposed to both, theres no place to go,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation For America, a group that advocates for more transit funding. 

Here are three areas to watch on transportation and infrastructure in 2021.

 

Green initiatives

House Democrats have already laid out their vision for how an infrastructure package could be used to boost environmental priorities. A $1.5 trillion package passed in July, but not taken up in the Senate, tied funding to statescarbon reduction efforts and provided billions for drinking water, transit and clean energy. The measure also would create jobs between the construction ones normally associated with infrastructure by focusing on design, engineering and small business as well.

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Biden largely views his $2 trillion climate plan in the same vein, as a job creator.

Infrastructure has to be a central tool in this administrations quiver,” said Bracken Hendricks, senior policy adviser at Evergreen Action, a group founded by former presidential campaign staffers for Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Thousands of troops dig in for inauguration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters MORE (D) who have pushed Biden to take bolder action on climate change.

With the recession, with the need for stimulus, there's going to be a need to move big capital investments into states and cities,” Hendricks added.

With many cities preparing for the harmful effects of climate change, environmentalists want to make sure new infrastructure is responding to those needs. 

I think there will be a suite of investments targeted less on transportation but physical resilience and hardening against disasters,” Hendricks said.

Another central feature of Bidens climate plan is a massive investment in renewable energy, pushing the utility sector to go carbon-neutral by 2035.

On the federal level, achieving that goal will mean incentivizing the development and deployment of wind, solar and other renewable energy technologies.

Also likely to be in the mix are efforts to weatherize homes, schools and other buildings to make them more energy efficient. Biden has called for weatherizing 2 million homes and retrofitting buildings.

A green infrastructure plan could be a less challenging lift, though difficult nonetheless, than trying to pass stand-alone climate bills rolled out by Democrats. But the climate angle would likely remain a hurdle for many Republicans who consider infrastructure a separate issue.

 

Transit

Biden will take office at a time when transportation systems are reeling from a loss of ridership during the pandemic. 

His administration aims to boost public transportation as a key way to reduce emissions, since the broader transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Under the House Democrats' infrastructure plan from earlier this year, the federal government would provide significant funding for rail and transit, as well as incentivize more frequent service — a key feature for recruiting riders — rather than lower operating costs.

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Osborne of Transportation For America warned that the longer Congress waits to pass COVID-19 relief, the greater the risk to public transportation systems that support the recovery by helping people get to work.

The money needs to go out and save transit if we want groceries on the shelf and want nurses at the hospital and if we want our economy to recover,” she said.

But one of Bidens biggest pushes has centered on electric vehicles and ensuring there is enough charging infrastructure nationwide to make their use more viable.

His plan calls for reinstating the electric vehicle tax credit, knocking thousands off the purchasing cost. Meanwhile, some advocates are pushing for a reboot of the Cash for Clunkers program that was popular during the Great Recession, arguing it could provide significant economic benefits while also getting older fuel-inefficient vehicles off the road.

Others are hoping Biden will lead by example and have the federal government transition to an all-electric fleet, using its procurement power to support the technology.

 

Broadband 

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The pandemic has only further highlighted the disparities in broadband access and the need to get high-speed internet into both rural America and any household where children are attending school virtually.

Bipartisan provisions to ease permitting of broadband projects were included in earlier COVID-19 relief packages, and broadband expansion as a whole has garnered support from both sides of the aisle over the years but with little in the way of significant funding.

House Democrats proposed as much as $100 billion in funding for their infrastructure package, but its unclear if the bipartisanship will extend to that dollar amount in any legislation next year. 

Biden has called for universal internet access through either broadband or wireless 5G.

This digital divide needs to be closed everywhere, from lower-income urban schools to rural America, to many older Americans as well as those living on tribal lands,” the Biden campaign wrote in its infrastructure plan.