By Katie Lobosco, CNN
States and local governments are stepping up plans to spend the billions of dollars provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year.
The law, enacted about 100 days ago, will provide $550 billion for new federal infrastructure investments over the next five years. About a fifth of the pot will be available in 2022 for a variety of projects, including roads, bridges, railways, water systems, airports, broadband and mass transit.
Passed with bipartisan support, the law marks one of President Joe Biden’s greatest victories. The administration, along with members of Congress, are eager to show off the bridges, roads and other projects that federal money will help build.
There is a massive infrastructure backlog in the United States awaiting funding, but it takes time to get projects off the ground. For the most part, money continues to flow to states and local agencies for construction that could begin in the spring.
The country’s infrastructure system, which earned a C- rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers last year, is in desperate need of money. According to a recent report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, approximately one-third of all bridges in the United States are in need of major repairs or replacements.
The collapse of a Pittsburgh bridge earlier this year – hours before Biden was due to visit the city to tout the new law – underscored the urgency.
How much money was spent?
The White House said Wednesday it has made available about $100 billion through a number of programs so far.
Some of the money is distributed through what are called formula programs, which distribute funds directly to states, and some of the money is available through competitive grant programs that require state and local agencies apply.
Several funding programs have already been launched, freeing up billions in funds for highways, bridges and airports.
Using infrastructure funds to strengthen the country’s supply chains is a high priority for the Biden administration. One of the first announcements he made was to award more than $241 billion in grants to 25 port projects, including the construction of a new locomotive facility in Long Beach, California, and the construction of an off-dock container support facility in Tacoma, Washington. The administration made available nearly $450 million more in harbor improvement grants this month.
A formula funding program that will help states create a network of electric vehicle charging stations was opened by the Departments of Transportation and Energy earlier this month. It will make $615 million available this fiscal year year and is expected to disburse $5 billion over five years.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it will use $1 billion to clean up and restore the Great Lakes region, with $200 million allocated for this year.
When will Americans see shovels in the ground?
It’s primarily up to states and local agencies to decide how and when to spend the money — within guidelines set forth by law.
“It’s not a deal right now,” said Mitch Landrieu, a former New Orleans mayor who was tapped by Biden to oversee implementation of the infrastructure law.
In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Landrieu declined to specify a timeframe for when Americans might see shovels in the ground.
“As soon as states are ready, they can start. The answer will depend on how prepared they are to move,” he said.
Getting billions of dollars to states is a heavy burden that requires coordination of multiple agencies at the federal level with officials at the state level. In January, Landrieu asked states to appoint their own infrastructure coordinator to facilitate the process. Twenty-five have done so to date, he said.
The administration has also launched a series of “school of infrastructure” webinars to help communities learn how to access help.
Simple projects, like paving a highway, might be the first type of effort a state tackles. But other more complex projects, such as the construction of a new bridge, may not start for months or even years.
“The good thing is, even if it takes a little longer, we’re starting today instead of years,” said Elaine Nessle, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors.
Many states have projects they have been planning for years, just waiting for increased financial assistance.
“I think public bodies are ready to move forward. These projects are so much more than just a twinkle in someone’s eye,” Nessle said.
A congressional heist
Experts told CNN the disbursement of the money was on schedule, except for a holdup.
Due to a budget quirk, some of the money provided by the infrastructure act cannot be spent until Congress passes the fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill. The federal government is currently funded by an interim bill known as the Continuing Resolution, though lawmakers are optimistic they can reach agreement on a full-year funding package by March 11.
Still, that leaves money “not yet spendable,” said Susan Howard, director of policy and government relations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
This includes a portion of the funds earmarked for the federal highway program and public transit programs.
“If we go too far down the road without a fiscal year spending package, we start to risk projects being delayed,” Howard said.
There are other potential challenges ahead than Howard and the Biden the administration monitors. Rising material and labor costs could mean that infrastructure dollars cannot be stretched as far as expected. Not only are construction workers needed, but government agencies can also need to hire more grant writers to apply for the funds.
The White House is also working to ensure the money is used effectively. and to prevent fraud and misuse of funds.
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