Congressional Infrastructure Bill Loaded With Local Stories

November 24, 2021
The infrastructure measure includes $15 billion to replace lead pipes, like the one above. That means opportunities for reporters to investigate how prevalent lead pipes might be in their local water utility, and what the plans are to replace them. Photo: Theen Moy, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Congressional Infrastructure Bill Loaded With Local Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

Environmental journalists are likely to spend much of the coming year writing about the consequences of the just-signed bipartisan infrastructure legislation.

No, it’s not a climate bill. But it is an environmental bill, and the environmental effects will be huge and manifold, so huge that it’s hard to see the whole thing at once. Roads and bridges, yes — but much more.

A reminder that this is separate from the so-called “Build Back Better” bill, which has not been finally enacted yet. Democrats in Congress will try to pass the Build Back Better bill under a legislative procedure known as reconciliation — which can be passed with a bare majority, by Senate Democrats only. That is if Democrats can actually agree and muster all their votes.

 

How to find local impact

As an environmental journalist, you may want to dig into the environmental consequences of specific road, bridge, dam, waterway, harbor and port projects. For instance, ask if they will reduce or increase greenhouse emissions.

But even if you read all 2,702 pages of the behemoth infrastructure bill, you might not be able to quickly tell what local and regional projects will be getting the money and affecting your audience.

 

The bill itself does not, in most cases, name

the specific projects to be funded. Instead,

it authorizes specific amounts of money

for specific types of projects in specific years.

 

That’s true in part because the bill itself does not, in most cases, name the specific projects to be funded. Instead, it authorizes specific amounts of money for specific types of projects in specific years.

In many cases, the money in a given category is divided among states using a politically neutral formula, and then state governors and agencies decide on awards to specific projects. Often, the local or private partner in a project must come up with a matching share to get funds.

But there are ways to get at local infrastructure-related stories driven by the new legislation. It is very likely, for instance, that your congressional representatives and senators worked hard to make sure projects in their domain would be funded. So call their offices and ask for the press person, who will probably be able to tell you what pet projects will or could be covered.

Also, chances are that others of your state and local politicians have been tracking developments. So talking to them is another first step. Check in with offices of mayors and city councils, county officials, state highway departments, state engineers and other agencies.

 

What’s in the bill?

To help get you started, here’s a rundown of what the bill authorizes for major categories of projects that relate to environmental and energy issues:

  • Roads and Bridges: $110 billion
  • Passenger and freight rail: $66 billion
  • Power grid improvement (includes CCS and hydrogen): $65 billion
  • Water and wastewater (includes $15 billion to replace lead pipes via Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, plus $10 billion to address PFAS contamination): $55 billion
  • Resilience (cybersecurity and extreme weather): $47 billion
  • Public transit: $39 billion
  • Airports: $25 billion
  • Remediation (cleanup of Superfund and brownfields sites, and abandoned mines; plugging oil and gas wells): $21 billion
  • Ports: $17 billion
  • Electric vehicles: $15 billion
  • Road safety: $11 billion
  • Western water infrastructure: $8 billion
  • Electric vehicle charging stations: $7.5 billion
  • Electric and hybrid school buses: $5 billion
  • Dam safety: $3 billion
  • Transportation in underserved rural areas: $2 billion

 

Extra goodies and environmental stuff

TipSheet also noticed a number of smaller, uncategorized allotments in the bill that could be of special interest to environmental and energy writers. For example:

  • Lead pipes: The $15 billion mentioned above could be a reason to investigate how prevalent lead pipes might be in your local water utility — and what plans and funds it has for replacing them.
  • Flood aid: Some $3.5 billion would go to FEMA over five years to distribute to state and local governments for building protection against flood damage.
  • Dam safety: The $3 billion allocation is a great excuse to look at dams near you. Most dams are privately owned and state-regulated. Are dams upstream of your audience safe? Who would or should pay to make them safer?
  • Animal overpasses: The bill allocates some $350 million for wildlife crossings — which prevent a common cause of death along major roads.
  • Highway pollinator plantings: Among the tens of billions for highways (see above), a minimal $2 million a year has been set aside for planting native flowers and pollinator-friendly treatments along highways.
  • Green transport in parks: Some part of the money in the bill will go to help fund green alternative transport in national parks, such as electric buses and scooters.

 

Reporting resources

Plus, check EJToday’s weekday headlines and @EJTodayNews Twitter feed to keep track of news on infrastructure and “Build Back Better” legislation.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 42. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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