Legislative leaders detail infrastructure priorities

The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure law is helping states make long-awaited upgrades.
Rhode Island House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Fixing roads, making trains run faster and expanding broadband are among the top transportation and infrastructure priorities of state legislative leaders as they head into their 2023 sessions.

The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure law is sending a torrent of money to states in what the Biden administration has called a “once-in-a-generation investment” in everything from lead pipe replacements to passenger rail improvements to road and bridge repairs.

According to interviews with state leaders across the country, it is money both Republicans and Democrats are welcoming as they look for ways to pay for deferred maintenance and to invest in new projects.

“We’re going to spend every single federal dollar that’s given to us,” Rhode Island House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) said. “I like to say if the federal government is giving a dollar, we’re taking it.”

Montana Senate President Jason Ellsworth (R) offered a similar refrain.

“This infrastructure money that is coming, we’re going to put to good use,” said Ellsworth, whose priorities include broadband buildout along with road and bridge projects.

The flood of federal dollars comes at a critical time for states. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure, much of which is decades old, a C- grade. That’s up from a D+ in 2017. Despite an improving grade, more than 40% of the nation’s public roads are still in poor to mediocre condition, and 42% of U.S. bridges are 50 years old or older.

“We have … some of the worst roads in the country, so we’re going to make sure we plug that money in to keep the road works program going forward,” Shekarchi said.

The nation’s airports, dams, electricity infrastructure, and drinking water and wastewater facilities also have billions of dollars in needs. West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R) said he hopes to “double down” on basic infrastructure spending.

“We want to deliver potable water and sewer to every address in the state of West Virginia. We want to deliver broadband technology to every home and business address in the state,” Hanshaw said.

In some states, the federal infrastructure money is helping to close the gap on projects that have already received state funding. In others, the arrival of the federal dollars has the potential to unlock additional state spending.

“The state will be ready to help invest where needed — whether it’s highways, whether it’s senior centers or whatever the case might be,” incoming New Mexico House Speaker Javier Martinez (D) said.

The infrastructure and transportation needs of states vary by region and population density. In the rural west, which is experiencing a population boom, roads and broadband expansion are top priorities.

“Idaho is a huge state with low population, so it takes a lot to maintain our [transportation] system,” Idaho Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Winder (R) said. “But it also takes a lot to expand our system, and with the growth we’ve had we need all the help we can get from a financial standpoint.”

Montana House Speaker Matt Regier (R), who described his state as “flush with infrastructure cash,” emphasized the need for broadband upgrades to fill in “dead pockets” so that rural Montanans have the option to work remotely.

In Washington State, where majority Democrats last year approved a 16-year, nearly $17 billion transportation package, one priority is reconnecting historically marginalized communities that were split apart when the interstate highway system was built.

“You’ll continue to see focus on that both because there’s some federal dollars available to help with that, but [also] because it was identified even before the federal dollars as a high priority for our state,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said.

Billig pointed to an effort to reconnect communities in his hometown of Spokane that were divided by Interstate 90 and U.S. 395, also known as the North Spokane Corridor.

Washington State lawmakers are also counting on federal infrastructure money to help fund the replacement of a new bridge across the Columbia River to Oregon. The transportation funding package passed last year includes $1 billion for Washington’s portion of that project.

“That will be a very big issue that we want to push forward and maximize the federal dollars,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D) said.

The bridge spanning Washington and Oregon is one of at least three bi-state bridge projects that are seeking federal infrastructure funding. Another, the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio, received a visit Wednesday from President Biden, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Govs. Andy Beshear (D) of Kentucky and Mike DeWine of (R) of Ohio to tout the money being spent to upgrade it.

In Connecticut, reducing traffic chokepoints and improving rail service are priorities of House Speaker Matt Ritter (D).

“We don’t need a complete redesign of everything,” Ritter said. “We need to really look at those critical chokepoints, No. 1, and then No. 2, [trains].”

In 2021, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) announced a multi-billion-dollar plan, contingent on passage of the federal infrastructure law, to shave time off commuter train service to New York. Ritter said he agrees with Lamont that reducing train commute times by 10 to 20 minutes would make a big difference.

“People will use public transportation when it is convenient and when it is fast,” Ritter said.

While Democrats generally have a higher comfort level with government spending, even fiscal conservatives can get behind investments in transportation and infrastructure.

“I don’t think [it’s] the role of government to solve every problem, but at the same time you have basic needs that do need to be solved, and bridges, roads are part of those needs,” said Ellsworth, the Montana Senate president.

Last year, Arizona lawmakers included $1 billion in the state budget for road projects, including a long-awaited expansion of Interstate 10 between Chandler and Casa Grande.

The state also applied for a $300 million federal infrastructure grant for that project, which runs through the district of Senate President Pro Tempore T.J. Shope (R).

“[Transportation is] one of the spending priorities that the Republican caucus has always been in favor of as far as getting those projects done,” Shope said. “It’s the one place you can spend money and you can actually see the result of what you spent.”

But not all infrastructure projects are above ground and visible. In Rhode Island, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) wants to leverage federal infrastructure money to continue replacing lead water pipes.

“It’s a health and safety issue, it’s also an education issue for us,” Ruggerio said, noting that lead exposure in children can result in learning and behavior problems.

Last summer, Rhode Island was awarded $3.3 million from the federal infrastructure law to assist Providence Water, which estimates 11,000 of its 77,000 customers have lead service lines, with an ongoing remediation program.

But even as states prepare to make a generational investment in infrastructure, there is an acknowledgment that the federal money — while significant — will be no match for decades of disinvestment.

“We haven’t really kept pace with the need over the last 10 or 15 years, and so we have some catching up to do,” Minnesota House Majority Leader Jamie Long (D) said.