Backers highlight benefits for Georgia in Senate infrastructure deal

As members of the U.S. Senate worked to finalize a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, Georgia’s Raphael Warnock reached across the aisle to Texas’ Ted Cruz. The result was passage of an amendment that added I-14, a proposed highway that would connect military bases in Augusta and Columbus, to a list of “high-priority corridors.”

This amendment created an added benefit for Georgia in a bill that Warnock says is already full of spending that would improve transit, roads, bridges and ports across the state.

But this infrastructure package negotiated by a bipartisan group of 22 senators is a work in progress with an uncertain future. A final vote is still not scheduled in the Senate, despite the fact members had expected to start a monthlong summer recess this weekend.

And the U.S. House’s most liberal members have vowed to stall its passage in their chamber unless the Senate also approves a separate spending bill that includes Democratic priorities that most Republicans, if not all, oppose. That bill could be as large as $3.5 trillion and is being drafted in a way that it can pass into law without a single GOP vote.

It is different than the infrastructure bill, which is a more traditional piece of legislation and needs the support of 60 senators to avoid a filibuster.

Both the infrastructure and spending bills have a ways to go.

The spending package will likely include two years of free community college, new clean energy standards, universal prekindergarten and other child care coverages, and a plan to expand Medicaid in conservative states such as Georgia. That makes it just as important as the infrastructure legislation currently on the table in the Senate, Warnock said.

“I see these bills as part of a holistic approach to spur job growth, taking seriously the crisis of climate change and building the human infrastructure that is necessary for America to lead,” he said. “And so, this bipartisan bill is necessary; the reconciliation (spending) bill is also necessary.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen promoted the infrastructure package and other aspects of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda to a group of community leaders in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday.

Though the U.S. economy is rebounding from the coronavirus pandemic, Yellen said the country needs big investments to address longer-term stagnation in wages, employment and economic equality. She said it also needs to address climate change, which, if left unchecked, “will undermine every aspect of our economy, from supply chains to the financial system.”

She called the infrastructure plan a “down payment” on climate change initiatives, citing its funding for half a million electric vehicle chargers and other measures.

The size of Biden’s economic agenda — including trillions of dollars in proposed spending on everything from climate change to social programs — has sparked a backlash from Republicans and some economists who say a massive increase in federal spending could spark rising prices that could hurt the economy.

Yellen said there are “good-faith discussions” to be had about how much spending is too much.

“My largest concern is not, what are the risks if we made these big investments,” she said. “It’s what is the cost if we don’t?

“We have a chance now to repair the broken foundations of our economy,” Yellen said, “and, on top of it, to build something stronger and fairer than what came before.”

David Moellering is president of the Georgia Highway Contractors Association, whose members would benefit from the spending. He said Georgia has plenty of roads and bridges that need work.

“This could go a long way to help solve some of those needs,” Moellering said. “I think the Senate plan is about as good as we could hope for.”

The infrastructure bill’s overall $39 billion in new funding for public transit is the largest federal investment ever, according to the Biden administration.

MARTA and other local transit agencies stand to benefit. Colleen Kiernan, MARTA’s senior director of government and community affairs, said the agency would get about $32 million more annually for the “state of good repair” of its transit system.

But she said the bigger impact of the bill could come from changes for federal transit programs that would make it easier for some projects to qualify for funding.

Kiernan said Atlanta and Clayton County are in a good position to capitalize because voters in those jurisdictions have approved transit funding measures in recent years that would serve as local matching funds.

Two projects that could benefit: a proposed bus rapid transit line in Clayton County and a transit line on Campbellton Road in Atlanta.

Bipartisan infrastructure bill

The White House released a fact sheet on how much all 50 states plan to gain over the next five years if the infrastructure package is approved. Among the highlights for Georgia:

  • $8.9 billion to repair and rebuild highways;
  • $1.4 billion to improve public transportation;
  • $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs;
  • $135 million to expand the electric vehicle charging network;
  • at least $100 million to build or improve broadband networks across the state;
  • 187,000 Georgians would also become eligible for a benefit that helps low-income families afford internet access.