Infrastructure Week is finally here, now that President Joe Biden has issued his plan to sprinkle $2.3 trillion from sea to shining sea.
The money would serve many purposes including trains, bridges, clean drinking water, home building and electrification. There’s even a pay increase for America’s “care infrastructure,” the staff — mostly women of color — who work in adult-care homes.
What we don’t know yet are which specific projects would be funded, a question that may take months to answer, if the plan passes at all. Republicans and some business groups have already objected to Biden’s proposed corporate tax increases to cover the bill.
But at least in the transportation realm, Puget Sound leaders know where nearby projects could attract federal money.
At the foot of Main Street in Edmonds, a ferry dock, train tracks, downtown streets, and a beach entrance have uneasily coexisted for generations. To untangle modern-day traffic requires more than $100 million the city doesn’t have.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., talked about it at a hearing this month.
“In my hometown, Edmonds, Washington, a train blocked the only access on the waterfront for three hours. This required first responders to literally crawl through the railcars to aid a pregnant woman who was about to give birth.” That train had stopped after striking and killing a man, back in April 2016.
But Cantwell’s main focus is to reduce worsening congestion that could hinder $443 billion in goods per year moving through the most trade-dependent state.
And she’s definitely looking toward the Biden plan to help improve railroad grade crossings.
“I feel like in every part of the state, you hear about this,” she said Wednesday.
“Vancouver [Washington] has tried to connect better to its waterfront and build developments, yet you have this major train infrastructure that’s trying to connect to the port,” she said.
Spokane Valley wants solutions at busy Pines Road, where four traffic lanes cross tracks near the riverside walk-bike trail. Traffic clogs around the railway in fast-growing Marysville, while officials in Lakewood, Pierce County, worry people will be hit by passenger trains.
Cantwell predicts local communities will ask to straighten the abrupt curve between DuPont and Nisqually, where three people died in a 2017 Amtrak derailment.
Biden’s plan pledges $85 billion “to modernize existing transit and to help agencies expand their systems to meet rider demand.” The White House pledged to double federal transit aid.
Sound Transit seeks a $1.9 billion boost in Federal Transit Administration grants for the Lynnwood and Federal Way light-rail lines under construction. Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff believes they’d qualify under Biden’s plan.
Rogoff noted an unprecedented passage in the 25-page text: “Every dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure during the Biden administration will be used to prevent, reduce and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis.”
“That is very heartwarming to those of us who are seeking funding to expand our systems to new communities,” Rogoff said.
However, that $85 billion could be spread thin, given that older transit agencies already struggle with repair and replacement backlogs totaling $105 billion. Would there be even enough left over to ease Sound Transit’s “affordability gap” of $11.5 billion?
Sound Transit remains attractive, Rogoff said, because it’s striving toward other goals that Biden set — to build affordable housing around stations and to create a $48 billion workforce development plan that includes construction apprenticeships.
Cantwell predicted some members of Congress will aim higher than $85 billion to enlarge the transit pie.
Biden’s plan promises to modernize 20,000 miles of highways, roads and streets, and fix “the ten most economically significant bridges in the country in need of reconstruction,” plus 10,000 smaller bridges.
The Federal Highway Administration couldn’t provide a list Wednesday. But Washington and Oregon already assume $1 billion or more in federal aid is coming to replace old I-5 bridges across the Columbia River, exceeding $3 billion overall.
Cantwell also mentioned the Highway 2 trestle and the cracked West Seattle Bridge as contenders.
Amtrak would receive $80 billion to improve or extend existing service nationwide, especially the popular Northeast Corridor. Passenger trains would reach Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, Nashville and some other cities where Amtrak doesn’t go now, the agency says.
However, the plan doesn’t fund bullet trains to rival those in France or Japan. The omission is surprising after Pete Buttigieg, the new transportation secretary, declared this winter the U.S. ought to lead the world in high-speed rail.
Northwest high-speed rail supporters, including Gov. Jay Inslee, have identified the 325-mile Vancouver, B.C.-Seattle-Portland corridor as a suitable region for 250 mph service, which Washington state estimates would cost $42 billion.
“We were certainly expecting to see something,” said Paige Malott, chairperson for the advocacy group Cascadia Rail. However, she remains optimistic because of a separate House bill proposing $205 billion, plus private and local funds, to multiple rail routes.
Perhaps the administration will revive high-speed ambitions later, Cantwell said. This week’s Biden plan, she said, appears designed to satisfy “immediate needs for competitiveness.”