Here’s what Pa.’s and N.J.’s chunk of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill might buy

August 10, 2021
In The News

In Pittsburgh, officials want to extend bus routes to connect more people with jobs in the city’s core. In northwestern Pennsylvania, money for Great Lakes cleanups could boost port business and tourism on Lake Erie. In Philadelphia, more low-income families could get subsidies for faster internet. In South Jersey, tens of millions would help finish a seemingly endless project to connect three major highways.

Elected officials, advocacy groups, and transit agencies across Pennsylvania and New Jersey are already dreaming about the projects that could result from the Senate’s $1 trillion infrastructure package. The plan, which passed the chamber in a bipartisan vote Tuesday, includes $550 billion in new money for items ranging from road and bridge repairs to airport upgrades, expanded broadband internet access, and public transportation.

“It’s going to be one of those things that we look back on and say, ‘This was the rebuilding of the United States during this time,’” said Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper.

The 2,700-page bill, representing one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities, includes few specific projects.

Much of the money would be distributed based on funding formulas and competitive grants — the first big federal investment in so-called hard infrastructure in more than a decade, though still less than experts say is needed. But officials are already mapping out what they could use the aid for.

 

Based on the formulas alone, Pennsylvania would see $11.3 billion for highway work, $1.6 billion for bridges — and $2.8 billion for public transit over five years, according to White House estimates. The bill could expand broadband access to 394,000 Pennsylvanians and subsidize 2.9 million more.

New Jersey would see $6.8 billion for highways, $1.1 billion for bridges, and $4.1 billion for public transit. Among the priorities: $72 million to help complete the $900 million project connecting I-295, I-76, and Route 42 in Camden County.

“It may double the amount of funding for infrastructure available to us over the next four to five years,” said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which is responsible for coordinating projects in Southeast Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

The commission estimates the region needs $150 billion over 30 years to restore its roads, fix deficient bridges, and expand transit service. “The new bill won’t get us all the way there, but it’s a positive step that will move projects forward,” Seymour said.

The bill cleared the Senate in a 69-30 vote Tuesday afternoon, with support from 19 Republicans and all 50 members of the Democratic caucus. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), the Philadelphia region’s only GOP senator, opposed the bill, calling it “too expensive, too expansive, too unpaid for.” House Democrats hope to quickly approve it — though passage there could depend on also taking steps toward a larger, $3.5 trillion plan for social programs that satisfies progressives’ demands. The outline of that package cleared its first procedural hurdle in the Senate in a party-line vote immediately after the bipartisan infrastructure vote.

Many Republicans worry so much spending could be wasteful and spur inflation.

“It’s not an infrastructure bill,” said one critic, Rep. Fred Keller (R., Pa.). “It’s a bill that has a lot of things attached to it that have nothing to do with infrastructure.”

Here are some of the ways Pennsylvania and New Jersey might put the money to use:

Roads, highways, and bridges

Pennsylvania officials anticipate getting $600 million to $650 million in new spending for highways and bridges for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Still, “there certainly are more [worthy] projects than there will be new money available,” said Larry Shifflet, PennDot’s deputy secretary for planning.

About 13%, or 4,217, of Pennsylvania bridges on state, local, and federal highways are in “poor”condition, PennDot says. And a state commission this month estimated an annual unmet need of $8.1 billion for highway repairs.

Locally, the bill could fund projects such as the $10.9 million replacement of two bridges around Quakertown, Bucks County — the Allentown Road Bridge over Licking Creek and the PA 633 Bridge over Umami Creek.

Broadband

The bill would designate a minimum of about $100 million to help improve broadband access in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Different places face different challenges: Some areas have broadband available but residents struggle to pay for it, while in others broadband service just doesn’t exist.

The bill funds both the expansion of pipes and wires needed to get people connected as well as subsidies for service and devices.

In Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country, 23% of households didn’t have an internet subscription as of 2019. This year, 37,000 residents received emergency broadband subsidies as part of the American Rescue Plan pandemic relief. The new bill extends that program.

“We’re glad the federal government is on board,” said Maari Porter, the city’s deputy chief of staff for policy and strategic initiatives. “We’ve been banging that drum for some time.”

Amtrak

Amtrak would get $12 billion for new intercity service, including plans to connect Scranton, Reading, and Allentown to New York.

“We haven’t had passenger rail in Northeastern Pennsylvania since the 1970s,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat whose district includes Scranton and the Poconos.

Cartwright said the route would help the region’s many commuters to New York City. And in New Jersey, “they love the idea of getting Pennsylvania cars off their roadways,” he said.

In Erie, Amtrak now makes just one stop a day and “basically shows up in the middle of the night,” Dahlkemper said. But Amtrak has plans for new daytime service connecting the city to Cleveland and Buffalo.

There’s also about $30 billion to upgrade Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line to increase speeds on the 457-mile Boston-to-Washington route. Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is the second busiest on the corridor, and officials anticipate the projects also will benefit New Jersey Transit and SEPTA, which both run on Amtrak tracks.

Public transit

Federal funding will help rural and small city transit agencies, but, as is typical, the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s $2.8 billion is expected to flow to SEPTA and the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates buses and a small subway serving Pittsburgh.

SEPTA has a backlog of infrastructure repair needs projected to cost $4.6 billion, including new train and trolley cars and buses.

In Allegheny County, Fitzgerald hopes expanded bus service will bring more residents within a ride of its tech sector and major research universities.

Environmental cleanup

The bill includes $1 billion to fight pollution, algae blooms, and invasive species in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes.

Both states might also benefit from $21 billion to clean up gas wells, Superfund sites, and abandoned mines. New Jersey has 114 Superfund sites, the most in the nation, and Pennsylvania has 287,000 acres of land “in need of reclamation,” according to the state, at an estimated cost of more than $5 billion.

Water

Drinking water would become safer as part of a $55 billion investment nationwide in projects such as eliminating lead service lines and pipes and cleaning up man-made contaminants.

That’s a significant investment but won’t eliminate all lead pipes, an effort Biden once quoted at $45 billion, three times more than what is allocated in the bill. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, said Stephanie Wein, of Penn Environment, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

Airports

Philadelphia officials hope to get some of the $25 billion allocated for airports to help a $1.2 billion Philadelphia International Airport effort to expand cargo capacity. The airport says the project would create 6,000 permanent jobs and 22,000 construction jobs and help it compete for more of the region’s $53 billion of cargo traffic.

“The ability to invest in something with a significant [return on investment] I think speaks to the spirit of the bill,” said Shane Doud, the airport’s director of government affairs.

Doud also hopes some of the $5 billion for terminal upgrades can help replace outdated baggage equipment and reduce security checkpoint congestion.

Appalachian Regional Commission

Some of the funding targets rural areas struggling with the decline of the coal industry and opioid addiction. The Appalachian Regional Commission would receive $1 billion to continue giving grants for job training, education, economic development, and fighting substance abuse.

The agency covers parts of 13 states, including 52 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. It’s cochaired by Gayle Manchin, whose husband, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), is one of the bill’s main authors.

In rural regions, she said, “we still have areas that don’t have clean drinking water, that don’t have a good sewer treatment plant, and those are not maybe the most popular things to talk about, but … in this day and age we should all have clean drinking water.”