Posted on November 15, 2021
The passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package is setting off a mad dash from states and counties seeking federal funds to repair and replace the nation’s crumbling bridges, roads and ports.
The legislation will deliver $550 billion of new federal investments to projects over the next five years. Many infrastructure plans have been shelved indefinitely as local officials struggled to find the funding, leaving the nation’s infrastructure system in desperate need of repair. It earned a C- score from the American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this year.
The federal money will be allocated through a variety of programs, mostly run by the US Department of Transportation. Some of the funds will be disbursed directly to state transportation agencies, and other monies will be awarded to selected applicants through competitive grant programs.
It’s up to state and local agencies to decide how best to apply for the funds. While some of the money could go out to states within weeks after the bill is signed into law, it could take months for the Department of Transportation to stand up the new grant programs and set the qualifying criteria.
The legislation does not name any specific projects that will receive funding, but here are four that will be seeking federal money.
Brent Spence Bridge: Fixing a Midwest artery
The Brent Spence Bridge passes over the Ohio River to connect Cincinnati, Ohio, with Kentucky and is key to trucking goods from Florida to Michigan along an interstate corridor. But it’s also known as one of the most congested bridges in the country.
Opened in 1963, the double-decker bridge was built to carry 80,000 vehicles a day and now carries twice that volume. An extra lane was added in 1985 but congestion persists. It has one of the highest crash rates for interstate highway bridges.
A $2.7 billion plan calls for keeping the Brent Spence Bridge and building a new bridge directly next to it, alleviating traffic around the Cincinnati region. The proposal has been on the shelf for years and the design is ready to be implemented, said Mark Policinski, CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.
“The feds are finally standing up and saying we will pay our fair share. For projects like this of national importance, it’s only right they should be paying,” he added.
It’s likely that federal funds would cover a portion of the cost, with states and localities also chipping in.
Lawmakers including President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the architects of the infrastructure bill, all recently pointed to the Brent Spence Bridge as a project that could benefit from the new spending package.
Expanding public transit outside Atlanta
A federal investment could jump-start plans for what’s known as a bus rapid transit system outside Atlanta, estimated to cost about $1 billion. The buses would run in dedicated lanes free from other traffic. One proposal would create a lane along the Georgia State Route 400 corridor, running north of the city toward one of the fastest growing subregions in the Atlanta area. Another lane is proposed south of the city, along the South Fulton Highway.
“We know what we need. We’ve studied it, but we’ve been struggling to find a way to fund these plans,” said Liz Hausmann, a Fulton County commissioner and transportation committee chair for the National Association of Counties.
Bus rapid transit systems are capable of moving people just as efficiently as rail without the cost of having to lay tracks. There are similar projects already underway within the city limits, expected to be operational by 2025.
Improving the Chicago rail hub
Chicago is the nation’s busiest rail hub, with nearly 500 freight trains and 760 passenger trains passing through the region daily. About 25% of US freight rail traffic moves through Chicago.
But this key rail junction is also a massive bottleneck. The system of rails in the region is so complex that a public-private partnership called the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, known as CREATE, was launched in 2003 to tackle 70 improvement projects.
About 30 of the projects are complete, but a boost in federal investment could help advance the multimillion dollar 75th Street Corridor project that’s currently underway. It aims to alleviate congestion at one of the biggest choke points in the system.
The project includes moving one rail line above ground, constructing a new commuter line and allowing some trains to access LaSalle Street Station instead of Union Station, freeing capacity at the latter for increased Amtrak service.
“We’re looking to untangle the spaghetti bowl of the bottleneck,” said Jennifer “Sis” Killen, superintendent of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways.
She said a new grant created by the infrastructure legislation, the National Infrastructure Project Assistance Program, could help fund projects just like this one that are multi-jurisdictional and of national significance.
Upgrading the Port of Baltimore
“We’re definitely going to aggressively pursue grant programs resulting from the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” said William P. Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, in a statement sent to CNN.
The legislation will provide $17 billion specifically for port infrastructure. Doyle said he is considering a plan to update the port’s electrical supply feeders to accommodate electric vehicles, like the four new container cranes that it started using in September. The potential investment is in line with the Biden administration’s goal to promote electrification and other low-carbon technologies.
The Maryland Port Administration may also seek funding provided in the bill for dredging projects. Dredging helps maintain the 50-foot depth of the port’s channels so that they can accommodate large ships. The dredged sediment is used to rebuild eroded islands in the Chesapeake Bay.
Doyle also noted that a pilot program included in the bill allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drive tractor-trailers across state lines could help alleviate supply chain backups and move cargo in and out of the port more quickly.