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Regional Leaders Say The Infrastructure Bill Is, Mostly, A Win For Western Pennsylvania

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

After months of negotiation and political maneuvering, the U.S. Senate this morning approved a $1.2 trillion bill that invests largely in traditional infrastructure, such as highways, bridges, and ports, as well as in clean water and the expansion of internet access.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey voted no, and said in a statement that the process was “driven by Democratic political imperatives rather than necessity.” Toomey characterized the INVEST in America Act as “too expensive, too expansive, too unpaid for,” and said it commits federal dollars to efforts, such as electric vehicle infrastructure, that the private sector has been “more than willing” to pay for. In addition, he said it added too much to the national deficit. Nineteen Republican senators ultimately joined with Democrats to pass the bill.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey called the bill a “long overdue” investment in American communities that will respond to the “many children and families [who] don’t have access to clean water and both rural and urban communities [that] lack reliable, high-speed internet.”

Before the vote, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman praised the bipartisan effort and said the chamber’s work “demonstrates to the American people that we can get our act together” and “do big things.”

The more than 2,000-page bill still needs final approval from the House of Representatives, but the Senate action won guarded praise from agency leaders and advocates in Western Pennsylvania.

Over five years the legislation commits more than $110 billion in new funding for roads and bridges, in addition to the regular appropriations for surface transportation. Over that period, PennDOT communications director Erin Waters-Trasatt said Pennsylvania can expect to receive more than $11 billion for highway programs and $1.6 billion for bridge repairs and replacements.

“This is the largest investment in infrastructure in decades,” and will create improvements throughout the commonwealth, she wrote in an email, adding that the funding complements state-level solutions.

The bill sets aside more than $55 billion for water systems and lead line replacements, an appropriation the White House characterized as “the largest investment in clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in American history.”

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority officials say the infusion of federal funding could move up its self-imposed 2026 deadline to replace all known lead lines in its system, and may also lower the costs to ratepayers. Since 2016 the agency has spent $90 million on the initiative.

“We are hopeful that after today’s vote, we are one step closer to making the needed infrastructure improvements … here in Pittsburgh, across the state, and throughout the country,” said a PWSA statement, adding that federal support could make room in the budget for further upgrades to the water, sewer, and stormwater systems.

The legislation also includes funding to make the country more resilient to both natural disasters and to cyber attacks. Vyas Sekar is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He said that cyber security is complicated work that involves safeguarding software, hardware, cloud infrastructure, the algorithms that run systems, and the people who interface with all of them. In addition, all of those components need to be continuously assessed for risk.

“Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet here,” Sekar said. “We should be really investing in foundational capabilities and long-term research across these dimensions to build future resilience.”

The bill sets aside $25 billion for airports and $17 billion for ports and waterways; officials from neither the Allegheny County Airport Authority nor the Port of Pittsburgh Commission were immediately available for comment.

As the country attempts to recover from the ongoing pandemic, the importance of travel options has emerged as a key issue. The legislation includes a new $39 billion appropriation for public transit. Port Authority officials were not immediately available for comment.

The bill perpetuates a car-centric approach to transportation by disproportionately sending more money to highways than public transportation, said Laura Chu Wiens, who directs Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“We know that that needs to change really dramatically,” said Chu Wiens, both to lower emissions and further equity. Funding to expand public transit service “is an opportunity to address some of the gaps in marginalized communities and underserved communities.”

Pittsburghers for Public Transit hopes to see further funding in a $3.5 trillion budget resolution being pushed forward by Senate Democrats that is expected to be advanced through a simple majority process called “reconciliation.”

That legislation includes many of the “human” investments outlined in April by President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan but didn’t make it into the bipartisan bill, such as home health care and green energy.

Many of the provisions of the bill passed today by the Senate stand to benefit Pennsylvania, said Ezra Thrush, senior director of government affairs for the nonprofit advocacy group PennFuture: capping orphan wells, dealing with brownfields, and investing in electric vehicle infrastructure in addition to the water and transit investments.

But it fails to “meet the moment for the climate crisis,” Thrush said. “The reconciliation package is the meat of the matter here.”

Senate Democrats released their $3.5 trillion reconciliation framework on Monday a few hours after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released itsmost recent report. The panel found that there’s no way to avert global warming, but humanity could still act to prevent the planet from becoming fully apocalyptic.

“This is more vindication of how important this legislation is, why we have to go big,” said Thrush, who has worked with Senator Bob Casey’s office to address environmental issues. In July, Casey introduced a plan to revive the 1930’s-era Civilian Conservation Corps in a dual effort to tackle climate change and create jobs.

The bill passed Monday still faces a rough road in the House of Representatives. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested she will not bring the $1.2 trillion bill to a vote until after the $3.5 trillion bill has been advanced by democrats in the Senate.