President Joe Biden is on a multistate tour to promote his infrastructure bill. He has signaled in recent weeks that he is ready to negotiate with Republicans, who have replied to his multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill with a slimmed-down $568 billion proposal focusing on traditional infrastructure and proposing user fees instead of new taxes to pay for the improvements.
One of the big areas of discussion, in both Congress and the press, has been what constitutes “infrastructure.” Most members and the public understand it to mean roads, bridges, ports, broadband, railways, energy, water supply and other physical infrastructure. Since there has long been strong bipartisan support for infrastructure spending, the Biden administration is trying to include certain health-care related measures under the “infrastructure” rubric. A fact sheet published by the White House in advance of Biden’s May 6 speech in Louisiana supporting his proposal listed caregiving, childcare and veterans’ health among his “infrastructure” items.
The way forward could well be indicated by a third proposal put forward by a bipartisan 58-member coalition in Congress calling themselves the Problem-Solvers Caucus. The report, released April 23, is called “Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure,” and sticks to traditional infrastructure items.
The group was formed to “find points of bipartisan consensus to address the enormous need for new infrastructure and the current backlog of deferred maintenance facing our country.” In a vague nod to the Biden administration’s concerns, the group said it was formed to explore “issues including but not limited to our highways, roads and bridges, transit and railways, ports and airports, water and sewer systems, energy systems and the power grid and broadband and communications networks.”
All three proposals include support for inland waterways modernization and funding. The Problem Solvers’ proposal urges a number of solutions friendly to waterways interests. It proposes making the FAST Act (which requires 90 percent of its INFRA competitive grants to go to highways, roads and bridges) more flexible to include more multimodal projects. It urges, “Building on the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, federal investments should continue to be strengthened in our inland waterways, as well as underserved and emerging harbors.”
We don’t know what will happen in negotiations any more than anyone else, but the emergence of this third proposal with broad bipartisan support is an encouraging sign that members of Congress are serious about getting an infrastructure bill passed. We also think it’s a good sign that all three proposals recognize the need for waterways investment.