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COVID-19 Aid, Infrastructure Package Discussed

Thursday, June 4, 2020

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Earlier this week, the United States Senate returned from recess with the intent to begin discussions on the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act.

Building on the previously passed CARES Act in wake of COVID-19, the 1,800-page package intends to provide and additional $3 trillion to states and cities, including $15 billion for highway programs.

2020 Government Infrastructure Funding

At the beginning of the year, Secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, announced a Notice of Funding Opportunity totaling $906 million in grants through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) discretionary grants program.

Established to advance a grant program created through the FAST Act of 2015, INFRA aims to help rebuild aging infrastructure in America by offering applications for financial assistance from the federal government.

Eligible projects include highway freight corridors on the National Highway Freight Network, highway or bridge projects on the National Highway System and projects expected to increase capacity on Interstates and other intermodal or rail projects.

JJ Gouin / Getty Images

Earlier this week, the United States Senate returned from recess with the intent to begin discussions on the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act.

The following month, U.S. Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York; Garret Graves, R-Louisiana; Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon; and Darin LaHood, R-Illinois introduced the Bridge Investment Act—a bipartisan bill that intends to invest $20 billion into repairing the nation’s failing infrastructure.

In recognizing that there was no current federal program in place specifically for bridge repair and rehabilitation projects for infrastructure needing significant work, members of Congress decided to act, and in July 2019, introduced the bill’s companion legislation in the Senate’s America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that there is $123.1 billion in bridge repair backlog, which includes $17.3 billion estimated for rural and local bridge repairs and improvements that are not listed on the federal-aid highway network.

Over the course of five years, the legislation intends to create a competitive grant program that will:

  • Rehabilitate, improve or replace bridges of all sizes, including local and rural bridges located off the National Highway System;
  • Supplement a new federal formula funding in an infrastructure package with the $20 billion to address the bridge repair backlog;
  • Establish a non-partisan, standardized evaluation process for proposed projects and expected benefits, ensuring fair funding for projects across the country—regardless of project size;
  • Enable states and local governments with transportation function, federal land management agencies and Native American tribes to apply for the grants;
  • Streamline repairs of medium and small projects by bundling into a single application;
  • Allow large projects to receive multi-year grant agreements; and
  • Create American jobs by requiring compliance with Davis-Bacon, “Buy America” and other standard requirements for federal-aid highway projects.

Overall, the program will invest $20 billion, but if leveraged by state and local contributions, could increase to $40 billion worth of projects.

The legislation was supported by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the American Roads & Transportation Builders Association and the Associated General Contractors of America.

The same month, the United States Department of Transportation announced through a NOFO that it would be applying for $1 billion in discretionary grant funding for the Fiscal Year 2020 through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary grants program.

According to USDOT, the BUILD grants are slated to be awarded to planning and capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure. The DOT expects to award 50% grant funding to rural projects that deliver positive benefits for the surrounding communities and are consistent with the ROUTES initiative.

The decision arrives as the Trump Administration looks to improve the nation’s infrastructure in FY 2020. In this round of grant awards, the maximum award will be $25 million, while no more than $100 million will be awarded to a single State.

In March, $225 million in discretionary grant funding was been made available by the USDOT through the Port Infrastructure Development Program, which was made available through the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020. The act also reserves $200 million for grants to coastal seaports and Great Lakes ports.

The USDOT intends to award the available funding on a competitive basis to projects that are found to be in relation to coastal seaports, inland river ports, and Great Lakes ports. The minimum award size is $1 million, however federal cost share is not to exceed 80%.

Also, in March and in wake of COVID-19, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials inked a letter to Congressional leaders seeking support for the creation of a fiscal “backstop” for the transportation sector.

In the letter, AASHTO urges Congress to grant an immediate and temporary waiver for federal truck weight restrictions, giving states maximum flexibility and discretion to manage interstate transportation of emergency supplies in combatting against COVID-19.

Officials also requested $16.7 billion in supplemental federal transportation funding to backstop expected state revenue shortfalls.

At the end of the month, President Donald J. Trump signed a $2 trillion stimulus bill (CARES Act) aimed to help American citizens experiencing lay-offs, companies suffering financially and the health care system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As listed in the Senate Appropriations Committee, highlights of the package include:

  • $117 Billion for Hospitals and Veterans Health Care;
  • $45 Billion for the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund;
  • $16 Billion for the Strategic National Stockpile;
  • $4.3 Billion for the Centers for Disease Control; and
  • $11 Billion for Vaccines, Therapeutics, Diagnostics and Other Medical Needs

These numbers are then broken down into the following subcommittees:

  • $34.9 billion to Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies;
  • $3.1 billion to Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies;
  • $10.5 billion to Defense;
  • $221.4 million to Energy and Water Development;
  • $1.82 billion to Financial Services and General Government;
  • $45.9 billion to Homeland Security;
  • $2 billion to Interior, Environment and Related Agencies;
  • $172.1 billion to Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies;
  • $93 million to the Legislative Branch;
  • $19.6 billion to Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies;
  • $1.1 billion to State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs; and
  • $48.5 billion to Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies.

In breaking down the allotted funding, the Engineering News-Record has calculated that while more than 80% of the package will go to state, local governments and communities, infrastructure and construction could be eligible for roughly $43 billion of that total.

Through the CARES Act, USDOT later announced in April that $25 billion in federal funding allocations for the nation’s transportation systems and $1 billion in funding for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) had been made available.

According to the USDOT’s press release, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) plans to use the $25 billion in allocated funding by giving $22.7 billion to projects in large and small urban areas, while $2.2 billion is slated to be used for rural infrastructure.

At the end of the month, Acting Inspector General Mitchell L. Behm issued a memorandum to the Secretary on supporting efforts made by the USDOT intended to meet CARES Act provisions.

In the memorandum, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) intends to provide an initial product in the coming months which will crosscut oversight risks and suggestions for mitigation regarding the Department’s efforts. The product plans to leverage key insight for bolstering the Department’s oversight of CARES Act grantees and contractors.

Additionally, Behm points out that because of the volume and speed required to make CARES Act funds available to the public, transactions are at higher risk for fraud, waste, and abuse. To mediate these possible threats, the USDOT and OIG plan to work together and look for any early indicators that might suggest potential misuse.

Other efforts made in April include the introduction of two pieces of draft legislation that would authorize the investment of $19.5 billion in the nation’s water infrastructure. The proposed legislation includes America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (AWIA 2020) and the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020.

The bills were drafted by Environmental and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and Senator Tom Carper, D-Delaware, and aims to provide the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with funding for flood protection, ecological restoration and increased water storage.

To break each drafted bill down individually, the AWIA 2020 legislation plans to authorize $17 billion for infrastructure projects and sets a two-year goal for the Corps to complete various feasibility studies for potential projects.

Specifically, $4.3 billion in federal funds will be used for 20 Corps projects. Most notably, projects receiving the funds include a $909 million flood protection program in Norfolk, Virginia and a $794 million federal share for a $983.7 million flood protection plan for multiple areas along the Atlantic shore of Long Island, New York.

Additionally, the AWIA 2020 offers conditional funding amounting to $7.5 billion, which would be used over three years for the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) and $2.5 billion for drinking water SRFs. However, because the funding is conditional, budgetary scoring could require offsetting revenue increases.

The draft of the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act would use the remaining $2.5 billion to reauthorize the Safe Drinking Water Act emergency fund and would authorize $300 million in grants to help with cancer-linked chemical contaminations.

Last month, he United States Department of Agriculture announced that it would be investing $281 million in rural communities for water and wastewater infrastructure.

In this round of funding, the USDA is splitting the $281 million between 106 projects in 36 states and Puerto Rico. The funds are being provided through the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program, which provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal, sanitary solid waste disposal and storm water drainage to households and businesses in eligible rural areas.

HEROES Act, Discussed

First unveiled back in January, House Democrats voiced their intent of pushing a massive infrastructure package in a follow-up installment to the CARES Act. According to the Associated Press, the plan centers on a $760 billion, five-year framework that includes money to rebuild roads, mass transit, rail systems, wireless communications networks and water projects.

While the January blueprint lacked a long-term source of funding, the proposal outlined $105 billion for transit systems, $86 billion for investments in broadband, $60.5 billion for wastewater and other water infrastructure programs, and $55 billion for rail networks.

The finalized over $3 trillion plan, however, includes a wide-ranging economic recovery bill which is intended to be used for extended unemployment benefits, state and local governments, and hospitals, plus expanded job protections and benefits for workers.

Although, the HEROES Act is met with much discrepancy from Republicans.

“We just borrowed significantly” for the $2.2 trillion measure,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I want to make sure that gets implemented fully before turning to borrowing more money and spending more money.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, chimed the same message, saying, “We need to make certain that any further actions we take are directly related to this public health crisis.” McConnell added that he would be opposing any Democratic effort to use a fresh economic recovery bill to advance environmental restrictions or their other policy preferences.

In the middle of last month, House Speaker Pelosi unveiled the finalized COVID-19 aid package, providing nearly $1 trillion for states and cities, “hazard pay” for essential workers and a new round of cash payments to individuals.

More specifically, the package offers another round of $1,200 direct cash aid to individuals—increased to up to $6,000 per household—and launches a $175 billion housing assistance fund to help pay rents and mortgages. There is $75 billion more for virus testing and $200 billion in “hazard pay” for essential workers on the front lines of the crisis. The Payroll Protection Program would also see an additional $10 billion.

In the infrastructure sectors, the bill outlines that:

  • $945 million would be used for Capital Improvement Project grants for hospitals and other critical infrastructure;
  • $140 million would be used to expand broadband infrastructure and information technology for telehealth and electronic health record system purposes;
  • $1 billion would cover expenses for grants for core public health infrastructure state, local, territorial, or tribal health departments as described in section 30550 of division C of the Act; and
  • $15 billion would be used for “Highway Infrastructure Programs.”

“As both parties come together to evaluate and negotiate a new package, we hope that a bipartisan, sustainable solution is achievable,” said ATA Executive Vice President of Advocacy Bill Sullivan.

Additionally, just yesterday (June 3), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee revealed a $494 billion surface transportation bill, which aims to aid states and cities struggling from the effects of COVID-19 before addressing climate change issues.

The legislation plans to provide $8.35 billion to help states achieve climate-conscience goals, in addition to:

  • $6.25 billion for resilient infrastructure;
  • $60 billion for rail investments;
  • $83.1 billion for state and local transportation services and $22 billion for associated salary and operating expenses;
  • $319 billion for highways;
  • $105 billion to transit;
  • $4.6 billion for highway safety; and
  • $5.3 billion for motor carrier safety.

The legislation also requires that states spend 20% of their NHPP and Surface Transportation Program dollars on bridge repair and rehabilitation projects—roughty $28 billion over the course of five years.

View all of PaintSquare Daily News' COVID-19 coverage, here.

   

Tagged categories: COVID-19; Department of Transportation (DOT); Funding; Government; Green Infrastructure; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; NA; North America; Ongoing projects; Port Infrastructure; President Trump; Program/Project Management; Project Management; Roads/Highways; Transportation; Upcoming projects

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