Taking A Look at 2020 Infrastructure Legislation

Congress provided some funding throughout the year, but a national infrastructure plan is needed.

By Tom Smith

Between a global pandemic, record unemployment, and an election cycle unlike any other, Americans had a bit of everything thrown their way in 2020.

What didn’t come to fruition was a comprehensive infrastructure investment package from Congress, a promise made to the American people each year by policymakers, but never acted upon; at least not since the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned the nation’s infrastructure a cumulative grade of ‘D+’ in 2017.

America’s infrastructure bill is long overdue. Our nation’s infrastructure systems face a $2.2 trillion investment gap, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic…”

America’s infrastructure legislation is long overdue. Our nation’s infrastructure systems face a $2.2 trillion investment gap, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which stripped away motor fuels tax revenue for our roads and bridges, while user fees vanished at our nation’s airports and transit systems, and customers who’d lost their jobs found themselves unable to pay for their water bills, cutting revenue from drinking water utilities. With all these factors joining the fray, the need to prioritize infrastructure investment has grown.

The CARES Act— the largest stimulus package in U.S. history which passed in March—was primarily centered around relief for hospitals and small businesses, but it did provide airports with $10 billion toward grants-in-aid, Amtrak with $1 billion in relief, and $25 billion to public transit. The legislation also included a provision to fully unlock the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is expected to provide over $24 billion to ports needing dredging work. Congress had not been utilizing the HMTF, allowing over $9 billion to go unused for our nation’s ports.

Congress failed to pass a second stimulus following the CARES Act, despite state Departments of Transportation requesting at least $37 billion over five years in emergency relief to make up for revenue shortfalls. President Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly reinvigorated talks of a package centered around infrastructure in April, but the idea fell apart when partisan demands began to infiltrate proposed infrastructure legislation.

House Democrats did pass the $1.5 trillion Moving Forward Act in July, which would prioritize investment in all infrastructure sectors. However, the bill has been shelved as GOP leaders declared the infrastructure legislation a “partisan wish list.”

One of the most significant legislative disappointments regarding infrastructure in 2020 was Congress’ inability to find a long-term solution for reauthorizing the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which was set to expire on Sept. 30. Enacted in 2015, the act has provided long-term funding certainty for public transportation systems, authorizing $305 billion to networks across the U.S. between 2016 and 2020. Congress agreed on a one-year extension to the FAST Act prior to the deadline to ensure surface transportation programs do not lapse, but the extension does not address the $37 billion in losses our state DOTs are expecting or the $32 billion in losses transit agencies are expecting, and doesn’t provide a long-term funding solution.

Despite sweeping infrastructure legislation hitting a roadblock, 2020 did include a historic win for our nation’s parks. In August, President Trump signed into law the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, a landmark piece of legislation which establishes a dedicated fund to address the National Park Services’ $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog and $8 billion in the repair of public lands managed by other federal agencies. It also permanently funds the Land & Water Conservation Fund, which is authorized for $900 million per year but usually only receives half of that funding.

In July, President Trump also announced revisions to The National Environmental Policy Act to speed up the environmental review process and streamline permits for critical projects. Critics of the revised NEPA ruling claim the relaxed permitting process will have detrimental impact on the natural environment. At ASCE, we argue that we should reduce delays, while also maintaining environmental protections.

As the incoming Biden-Harris Administration assumes its post in the White House in January, infrastructure must be a top priority. ASCE’s recent Failure to Act economic reports highlight the current underinvestment in our nation’s drinking water, energy, and surface transportation systems, hindering our economy and wellbeing. Underinvesting in these sectors costs the country hundreds of thousands of jobs, trillions in GDP over a 20-year span, and cause adverse health conditions for residents.

Conversely, investing in our critical infrastructure will create jobs and spur economic activity. President-elect Biden has proposed a $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan as part of his Build Back Better plan. Reaching a multi-year extension on the FAST Act and passing a Water Resources Development Act are imperative for reviving the economy post-COVID. Transit agencies and state DOTs need relief, as revenue shortfalls are sure to plague the sector for years to come.

2020 has dealt a blow to our nation’s economy. Investing in infrastructure can bring it back.

 Tom Smith is the Executive Director of the American Society of Civil Engineers and has held the role since 2015.