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With infrastructure vote, Buttigieg gains a multibillion-dollar tool to speed up megaprojects

The program is one part of an infrastructure package that includes what the White House calls the biggest-ever investment in rail and transit

The Brent Spence Bridge in Covington, Ky., shown here in 2017, carries tens of thousands more vehicles a day than it was designed to handle. (Al Behrman/AP)

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill adopted late Friday creates a multibillion-dollar fund to spur the type of complicated, ambitious projects that have been stymied by decades of tentative investment and inattention from Washington.

Modern-day equivalents of megaprojects like the Hoover Dam can benefit broad swaths of the United States, but infrastructure experts say they have often stagnated. President Biden campaigned to address the issue. Now his transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, is tasked with speeding up such projects, which can straddle state lines and take years to complete.

The 228-to-206 vote after months of delays launches a vast new effort to improve the nation’s transportation networks, water and power systems, and Internet connections. Administration officials see the megaprojects program — and others intended for large-scale projects — as tools to break long-standing logjams.

Among the projects that could see a boost: the Gateway rail project, a vast plan to expand capacity for train traffic between New York and New Jersey; and a long-delayed effort to replace the outmoded Brent Spence Bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio, which is one of the nation’s worst bottlenecks.

“No matter where they live or who they voted for, all Americans deserve to have a transportation system that works for them,” Buttigieg said in a statement after the vote.

The infrastructure bill includes about $16 billion for “major projects that are too large or complex for traditional funding programs,” but that have big economic benefits, according to the White House.

“We think it puts us in the game to get funding,” said Mark Policinski, chief executive of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, which has championed the $2.7 billion Brent Spence Bridge project, which also includes road improvements for miles in each direction. “The federal government has basically given a cold shoulder to infrastructure across this country for a long time — not just a few years, but for a few decades.”

Policinski said federal support could push the project over the finish line after years of complications that involve dealing with two states, myriad competing interests and insufficient money for a Cincinnati-area project that has broad support. He said a bridge designed for 3,000 trucks a day now carries 30,000.

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Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the bill’s architects, cited the bridge in a statement that described the benefits of creating a National Infrastructure Project Assistance grant program within the Transportation Department. Portman pointedly noted that Congress appropriated $5 billion for the megaprojects program and authorized billions more over five years for efforts “like the Brent Spence Corridor project.”

The bridge is also a top infrastructure priority of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who was among the Republican backers of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Under the program, some projects must cost at least $500 million, while others must be between $100 million and $500 million to be eligible.

In addition to new spending on highways and bridges, the broader infrastructure package also includes what the White House calls the nation’s biggest investment in transit and clean energy transmission in U.S. history, as well as billions for replacing lead pipes and extending broadband. It includes investments in passenger rail, electric vehicle infrastructure, and programs to address past environmental damage, reduce road deaths and improve airports and waterways.

Buttigieg late Friday called it “the most significant investment in jobs and infrastructure in my lifetime,” saying the bill will “rebuild and replace infrastructure that is decades, or even a century, old.”

Biden late last month announced a framework for a separate $1.75 trillion climate and social policy package that represents a major piece of his agenda. It includes funding for universal preschool, expanded health care, and new clean energy and other investments. A draft of the reconciliation bill, released as negotiations continued, includes billions in spending on high-speed rail and transit connected to affordable housing or benefiting disadvantaged communities.

Congressional and administration officials said the one-two punch of an infrastructure bill followed by the Democratic budget plan would have deep effects across the country.

The Gateway Program, a top priority of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), is among the megaprojects set to benefit from the just-passed infrastructure bill.

After a tour of parts of the project this summer, Schumer said he was confident that congressional action, in the infrastructure bill and reconciliation process, would provide “the billions of dollars we need to build Gateway.”

“One of the first things I mentioned to President-elect Biden was Gateway. He said he’s on board,” Schumer said. With Buttigieg looking on, Schumer said he heard the same from the transportation secretary. “He’s all on board. … Things will move very quickly,” Schumer said.

Buttigieg said he told Schumer he would “tear down any unnecessary bureaucracy and work together to make sure that these things could advance.” After seeing up close “the best construction that you could possibly get — 110 years ago,” he added that an outage in the critical tunnel would be felt “all the way back in Indiana where I come from.”

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Stephen Sigmund, spokesman for the Gateway Program, said the first two projects — a planned Portal North bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey and a new tunnel under the Hudson River — have financing plans in place and are not dependent on the infrastructure bill. Still, Sigmund added, the billions in additional funds the bill will provide to the U.S. Transportation Department’s Capital Investment Grants program will be “a great help to the project.”

Later phases of the Gateway Program, including far-reaching track improvements and other bridge projects, could benefit from the megaprojects fund and other large pots of money in the bill, Sigmund said.

The critical Northeast rail corridor “narrows down to this old straw that gets crimped in various places,” Sigmund said. “The whole idea is to establish a four-track system between New York and New Jersey, which would replace the current two-track system — one track in, one track out — which is 110 years old.”

The bulk of transportation funds in the infrastructure bill will flow through existing programs, in which states get money according to federal formulas and have discretion over how they use the money. It will allow states to make progress on routine projects, such as repaving roads, upgrading bridges and buying new buses.

But large sums also will be distributed through competitive grant programs, giving the Biden administration an opportunity to select projects that align with its priorities and policy aspirations, particularly efforts to combat climate change and address inequities caused by past transportation projects.

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Transportation Department officials cited bridges or tunnels connecting two states; new rail and transit lines; and a freight hub integrating ship, train and truck traffic as examples of the type of projects that might be considered.

While some funding has been available in the past for such work, the demand for those dollars has far exceeded the supply. More than 150 applications for one major grant program earlier this year sought about $6.8 billion in funds, seven times the amount that was available, according to the department.

In addition to providing funding for expensive and time-consuming projects, Transportation Department officials say the megaprojects program is also intended to build long-running partnerships between federal, state and local officials to solve technical and other barriers to ambitious projects.

Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, said many existing competitive grant programs aren’t big enough to handle megaprojects.

He said officials around the country have big ideas that might benefit from such funding, including plans for passenger rail along the Front Range in Colorado; a regional rail plan in San Diego; expanding transit from the San Fernando Valley to the Westside in southern California; and efforts to tear down, reroute or reimagine highways in Louisiana, New York and elsewhere.

Even with billions in new money to spend, DeGood said, the administration may feel pressure to try to spread itself too thin, something he said should be avoided.

“There’s a tension between saying ‘yes’ to more projects and the fact that if you say ‘yes’ too many times, your grant awards are too small and you’re not necessarily doing transformative projects anymore,” DeGood said.

What you need to know about the infrastructure bill

The latest: House lawmakers late Friday adopted a roughly $1.2 trillion measure to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections, overcoming their own internecine divides to secure a long-sought burst in federal investment and deliver President Biden a major legislative win.

FAQ: Here’s what’s in the bill

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