State and local politicians from both parties are at odds with the Biden administration over how billions of dollars should be spent on new infrastructure money.
Republican governors are angered by a federal memo aimed at capping dollars on highway expansion. Western states and some advanced cities don’t like the Feds’ plan for using EV chargers. Some construction companies fear that without strong union representation, labor policies included in certain programs could hurt red states.
And more conflict is likely to emerge as federal agencies continue to release details for the bill’s programs.
Last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill was hailed by heads of state on all sides as a much-needed investment in roads and bridges, broadband internet, water systems and other priorities. But while the federal agencies are signing the checks, state and local governments will largely decide how to channel the money for specific projects — and they’ll have to raise some funds themselves.
As local officials wait for the money, some fear federal agencies will focus on priorities not specifically approved by Congress, which could limit their ability to use or access the funds.
The most prominent dispute revolves around an internal Federal Highway Administration memo distributed to top officials in December, urging federal officials to prioritize existing repairs, public transportation and bike lanes over new highway expansion projects.
Last month, 16 Republican governors sent a letter to the Biden administration, urging agency leaders to “bend over states and allow maximum regulatory flexibility.”
“Your administration should not seek to advance a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments, and instead should consider sound economic principles that align with state priorities,” wrote the group, led by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
While only Republican governors signed the letter, several Democrat-led states, including Washington, Nevada and North Carolina, have also prioritized highway expansion.
Tennessee officials say the state is already poised to meet many of the priorities outlined in the federal memo, but they have raised philosophical objections to the federal agency’s attempts to direct funding.
“The law specifies what the funds can be used for, and that’s the flexibility that Congress has given states,” said Preston Elliott, director of the environment and planning office at the Tennessee Department of Transportation. “Having a memo that isn’t in the law sends a contradictory message. It’s just adding additional perceived limitations to something Congress hasn’t actually told them.”
This month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, urged governors to ignore the memo on highway projects.
“Nothing in the [law] offers [the Federal Highway Administration] with the authority to dictate how states should use their federal formula funding, and does not prioritize public transit or bike lanes over new roads and bridges,” McConnell wrote in a letter to governors, along with GOP U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who Republican from West Virginia who is the senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Federal officials have since said the memo does not amount to an order, nor does it specifically prohibit the construction of new highways or bridges. But some groups that supported the infrastructure package say the memo has caused confusion and undermined efforts by the bipartisan coalition that came together to pass the law.
“The law is very clear,” said Ed Mortimer, vice president of transportation and infrastructure at the US Chamber of Commerce. “States have a lot of leeway to invest in the projects they need to invest in. [State transportation officials] want the flexibility to do what is best for their state.”
Susan Howard, director of policy and government relations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said states would not risk losing funding by ignoring the federal memo.
“We share many of these priorities, and states are already doing a lot in these areas,” she said of the Biden administration’s priorities. “But a policy memo is fundamentally different than a change in the law. States must use the money as they see fit.”
Some leaders have also expressed concern about the Biden administration’s plan to spend $7.5 billion on electric vehicle chargers.
Officials at the Federal Joint Energy and Transportation Office recently announced that federally designated alternative fuel corridors focused on freeways will be prioritized in the program’s first project year. These corridors are stretches of highway nominated by state and local governments, with infrastructure to support charging stations and other alternative fuels.
Some state and local politicians have said the strategy does not meet their needs.
“The guidelines for the alternative fuels corridor program may not align with what needs to be accomplished,” said Melissa Savage, director of environmental programs at the state transportation officials group. “In some areas these corridors have been developed. … Some states will need more flexibility.”
The federal agency’s guidance calls for states to submit more highways for corridor designation, and says focusing on the corridor strategy “will build a practical, reliable, affordable, and equitable public charging network.”
The corridor program requires charging stations every 50 miles, which poses a challenge for rural states.
“Some western states are struggling to meet these defined metrics due to a lack of electrical infrastructure and proper charging locations in sparsely populated areas,” the Western Governors Association, made up of 19 states in the region, wrote in a policy resolution submitted to federal transportation officials in December .
The cities of Seattle and Denver also submitted comments to federal agencies requesting funds for use beyond the federal corridor program. Seattle’s letter also asked officials to prioritize areas that use electricity from renewable energy sources to charge electric vehicles. Most of Seattle’s electricity is provided by hydroelectric power, which would give it an advantage over regions that rely on natural gas or coal.
Some construction industry groups have noted that other federal funding program guidelines, including some included in the Infrastructure Act, encourage project labor contracts, known as PLAs, which could benefit unionized contractors. Such agreements are collectively negotiated default terms for a particular project.
Democrats often tout PLAs as a way to ensure strong labor standards and prevent work stoppages. Republicans claim the accords are designed to steer contracts to pro-union companies. 24 states ban state-mandated PLAs for state and local construction projects.
“This is a federal sleight of hand to encourage union membership,” said Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and government affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors, a construction industry association. “They attach conditions to this outside of the legislative process, and it’s designed so that that money goes to blue states that support union work.”
Republican governors also cited union membership, equity and climate as factors not to consider when allocating infrastructure funds in their letter to the Biden administration.
Speaking to the McClatchy DC Bureau late last month, Mitch Landrieu, senior adviser to Biden, the former New Orleans mayor who oversees implementation of the Infrastructure Act, expressed optimism that state and federal leaders could find common ground.
“Whatever challenges we have, whether political or ideological, the mission is to meet them,” he said. “We’ll find a way to do it, hell or high tide.”
Further infrastructure disputes are likely. Federal guidance is still being developed for many of the programs in the bill, particularly the new ones. Howard of the State Transportation Group said many states are excited about federal plans to implement new climate resilience and carbon reduction programs.
“There are questions and concerns about some programs,” she said. “There will be no shortage of questions about eligibility and how this interacts with current practices.”
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