To make her case that rural Iowa needs federal help fixing its roads and bridges, U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer took her colleague U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on a tour of Buchanan County in northeast Iowa. There, they saw engineers making bridges out of old rail cars and roads that hadn’t been paved or repaired for years. Iowa has the most structurally deficient bridges in the country.
Her plan apparently worked. When the committee passed a long-awaited bill to direct federal highway funding through 2025, it included language to instruct states’ transportation departments to prioritize the maintenance of existing roads and bridges over building new projects.
Now that bill is the centerpiece of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package House Democrats unveiled last week, that Democrats framed, in part, as a coronavirus pandemic recovery package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged to vote on the measure before the July Fourth recess.
Iowa Democrats say the time is right to increase spending on long-stalled efforts to increase infrastructure spending.
“There’s no better time to put an infrastructure bill in place than when we need to put people back to work with good paying jobs,” said U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat representing southwest Iowa.
Finkenauer, who represents northeast Iowa, said lawmakers are also trying to make sure that certain areas, particularly rural ones, aren’t left out of an economic recovery.
“Frankly, after 2008, a lot of our areas were left behind because people left our small towns to go find jobs in bigger cities because they didn’t have broadband or what they needed in small towns,” she said.
“Now we have the opportunity to bring investment into our rural areas, into our smaller towns, into districts like mine. We can bring people back home and create good-paying jobs as we do it,” Finkenauer said. “This is a no-brainer of how to do that.”
But there’s still a long road ahead before any such legislation reaches the president’s desk.
Many of the provisions in the package would normally find their way into separate bills, but House Democrats have chosen to work most of them simultaneously into one massive package. (The exception is a bill that covers water infrastructure, like river levees and municipal wastewater facilities. The House will take that measure up separately, at the end of July.)
Among the provisions they are pushing is a new law to provide for road and transit funding, because the current surface transportation funding law is set to expire later this year. They are looking at ways to build out broadband internet service in rural areas. And they are proposing spending more to improve school buildings, upgrade hospitals, build affordable housing and encourage the development of clean energy.
The ambitious agenda hasn’t gone over well with House Republicans, who complain they have been shut out of the process.
GOP lawmakers have also slammed Democrats for failing to come up with a way to pay for all of their proposed improvements.
Unlike its approach to many programs, Congress has tried to make most infrastructure programs pay for themselves through user fees and fuel taxes. But because Congress has taken on debt to pay for massive tax cuts and economic rescue packages in recent years, House Democrats are floating the idea of borrowing money to pay for increases in infrastructure spending.
The House Democratic package faces significant obstacles in the Republican-led Senate, where lawmakers are working on a much smaller but bipartisan effort to renew the surface transportation law.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement that Ernst is “working with her colleagues — both Democratic and Republican — to help restore and modernize roads, bridges and dams.” Ernst has also worked to increase flood control and expand broadband access, said Ernst spokeswoman Kelsi Daniell. The senator sits on a committee that has recently passed two pieces of legislation that address both water infrastructure and surface transportation like highways.
“Bottom line,” Daniell added, “Sen. Ernst wants to see Congress take action on infrastructure.”
President Donald Trump is also a wild card. He has often called on Congress to pass a massive new infrastructure package, but his administration has offered few details about what such a package would include or how it would pay for new construction.
One provision that could have a big impact on Iowa is a $100 billion plan to improve the country’s broadband networks. Under the plan, internet providers would compete in bidding processes at the federal and state levels to get a share of that money for bringing high-speed connections to unserved or underserved areas.
“Through COVID-19, it’s been laid bare that this country has a huge inequity when it comes to connectivity in this country,” Axne said.
Those disparities have prevented children from accessing online instruction, veterans from getting remote health services and businesses from being able to have their employees work from home, she said.
Improving rural broadband access is U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack’s top infrastructure-related goal, he said. Loebsack, a Democrat from southeastern Iowa, who remembers pulling into a hospital parking lot while campaigning in rural Iowa just to get a Wi-Fi signal, called the rural broadband piece significant. Unlike in other areas of the country, people can’t just go to a local McDonald’s to get an internet connection, he said, noting that many small towns in Iowa don’t have fast food restaurants.
The pandemic has shown the need for better internet access, Loebsack said, but it has also wiped out states’ and localities’ capacity to pay for improvements.
“We just have to have more federal funding, because states are struggling and localities are struggling with their revenues,” he said.
Loebsack hoped the rural broadband provisions would attract the support of Republican lawmakers. Few Democrats in Congress represent predominantly rural areas, he noted, so rural broadband efforts could benefit Republican areas as well.
Highways and transit
The centerpiece of the House Democrats’ proposal is the reauthorization of a law that provides for most of the federal spending on highways and transit systems in the country.
Finkenauer said there are several provisions, including the maintenance requirement for existing infrastructure, that would help rural Iowa.
“A lot of those (structurally deficient bridges) are actually in our rural areas,” said Finkenauer, who serves on the House committee that oversees surface transportation. “It’s just been places that have been ignored for far too long, specifically in Washington, and often overlooked.”
After the Great Recession, the Obama administration pushed states to use federal stimulus money for “shovel-ready” projects to help people get back to work quickly. But Axne stressed that the quick economic boost is only part of the reason the House Democrats are pushing for infrastructure improvements.
“It’s great if we can get some short-term economic boost, but the goal needs to be fixing our infrastructure in the long term,” she said. “And by the way, that’s going to be an even better economic boost. That’s going to keep people employed longer. It’s not just a shot in the arm.”
The Democratic proposal would increase funding for Amtrak and public transit, and give public transit agencies grants to buy electric buses.
There’s also money set aside to improve safety on rural highways, an issue Finkenauer called “very personal” for people in her district.
“Oftentimes, you have an unsafe situation in parts of a rural county, but they don’t necessarily have the funds to address it,” she said. Smaller towns that have been growing have also struggled to be able to upgrade their roads and intersections to handle the new demand, she added. The legislation would allow state governments to use their federal money to improve smaller roads like those.
Finkenauer also pushed for provisions in the infrastructure package that would make it harder for states and localities to “use an accounting trick” to sidestep federal rules that require them to buy supplies made in the United States and pay prevailing wages for federally funded projects. Finkenauer said strengthening the federal rules would allow more Iowans to have good-paying jobs closer to home.
Daniel C. Vock is a correspondent for the States Newsroom Washington, D.C. Bureau.