‘Highway to Nowhere’ Could Benefit as Senators and Biden Strike Deal on $550B in New Infrastructure Spending
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators say they have worked through the sticking points on a major infrastructure package, and the Senate agreed on a procedural vote on Wednesday night to advance to debate on the proposal.
That announcement came a week after Republicans blocked a test vote on the deal, with GOP senators opposed to beginning debate before that proposal was fully drafted. Democratic and Republican members of the Senate voted on Wednesday 67-32 to start work on the new version of the bill, easily surpassing the 60 votes needed.
A White House fact sheet on the sweeping $1.2 trillion deal said it contains $550 billion in new spending, including:
- $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major projects;
- $66 billion for rail improvements;
- $65 billion for broadband grants;
- $55 billion for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure;
- $46 billion to boost resiliency against floods, drought, and other extreme weather;
- $39 billion to modernize public transit systems; and
- $15 billion to build a national network of electric vehicle chargers, and pay for fleets of electric buses
A ‘Highway to Nowhere’ solution?
Maryland Senators Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) announced Wednesday evening that the bill also includes a first-of-its-kind $1 billion allocation to reconnect communities divided by transportation infrastructure, including West Baltimore with its “Highway to Nowhere.”
Similar provisions were included in the Reconnecting Communities Act introduced by the Senators earlier this year; Maryland Reps. Anthony Brown, Kweisi Mfume and John Sarbanes (all D) introduced the measure in the U.S. House.
If passed, the program will fund planning, design, demolition, and reconstruction of street grids, parks, or other infrastructure.
“Transportation should be a source of growth and mobility, not division and exclusion,” Cardin, chair of the Environment and Public Works Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, said in a statement. “…This kind of federal program is long overdue, but now there is bipartisan recognition that the time has come for federal action to support communities that were left out and harmed by our outdated approaches to infrastructure.”
The so-called Highway to Nowhere required the demolition of 971 homes and 62 businesses for its construction and divided neighborhoods in West Baltimore without ever achieving the vision of creating an east-west thoroughfare connecting highways in the city to Interstate 70. For decades, the 1.3 mile stretch has been a source of complaint for nearby residents.
“This project, which paved over communities and displaced some 1,500 residents — serves as a stark example of the long history of inequity in the siting of infrastructure. To create opportunity and build stronger cities, we must right this wrong and remove harmful infrastructure that separates our communities,” Van Hollen, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.
Paying for the plan
The legislation would be paid for by repurposing money from the COVID-19 stimulus bills, including unemployment compensation dollars that states have not used. It also relies on money from corporate user fees and tougher tax enforcement on cryptocurrencies.
President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that the deal “signals to the world that our democracy can function, deliver, and do big things.”
“As we did with the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway, we will once again transform America and propel us into the future,” Biden said in the written statement.
The infrastructure deal’s announcement was swiftly lauded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which urged speedy approval of a measure it said would “provide enormous benefits for the American people and the economy.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who was involved in the infrastructure negotiations, also praised the proposal during a speech on the Senate floor, commending in particular the money intended to help mitigate flooding and other coastal issues in states like his.
“Some people have confused this bill with the $3.5 trillion Democrat tax-and-spend extravaganza,” Cassidy said, referring to a second bill that Biden also has sought to provide more money for child care, education, and a range of progressive policy goals.
“They are two different bills. This bill is for roads and bridges and broadband and resiliency, flood control and coastal restoration. The other is for who knows what.”
The linkage of those two proposals caused a brief speed bump last month for negotiators from the White House and U.S. Senate.
The group, led by Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, and Ohio’s Rob Portman, a Republican, had announced a deal on the general outline of an infrastructure proposal to spend $1.2 trillion over eight years.
But it was briefly jostled by Biden’s comments that he would only sign the bill paying for traditional infrastructure projects if Congress also sends him a second bill he’s sought to provide more money for what he calls “human infrastructure,” such as child care and education.
Biden later revised his comments, reasserting his support for the infrastructure deal.
The key senators involved in the infrastructure talks besides Sinema, Portman and Cassidy have included Republican Susan Collins of Maine; and Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire; Jon Tester of Montana; and Mark Warner of Virginia.
Maryland Matters Editor Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated after the Wednesday night vote by the U.S. Senate.