Top 10 Ag Stories of 2021: No. 9

Roads, Bridges and Broadband Get Their Due in Infrastructure Act

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The infrastructure bill includes special carve-outs to help repair or replace dilapidated rural bridges around the country. Agricultural and business groups alike called on Congress to pass a new infrastructure plan, which finally happened in November. (DTN file photo by Matthew Wilde)

Editor's Note: Each year, DTN publishes our choices for the top 10 ag news stories of the year as selected by DTN analysts, editors and reporters. We continue the countdown with No. 9, looking at the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress in November, and how it will boost federal spending on roads, bridges and digital infrastructure such as broadband during the next several years.

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OMAHA (DTN) -- With the backing of agricultural and business groups, Congress closed a deal in November on a $1.2 trillion plan to upgrade the country's roads, bridges, ports and electric grid with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The bill, with an injection of $550 billion in new spending over 10 years, had been considered a necessity for the United States for more than a decade, but dilapidated bridges, jammed ports and Western drought finally prompted Congress to agree on a collection of needed projects.

The funding will provide one of the largest increases in investment in roads, bridges, waterways and electric infrastructure in history, but the act is viewed by some through the partisan lens that darken political debate in the modern era.

The new law will increase spending for roads by $110 billion, including another $40 billion for bridge projects. Another $66 billion will go toward rail.

Importantly for rural America, the bill also includes $65 billion to build out broadband infrastructure nationally.

With port congestion now a national priority, the bill also increases funds for ports and inland waters by $17.3 billion. Those funds should help upgrade locks and dams along the Mississippi River, which is the main waterway for corn and soybean exports through the southern Louisiana ports.

Among the road provisions, the bill includes the Rural Surface Transportation grant program, which authorizes $2 billion over five years. A separate bridge restoration fund would spend $3.26 billion over five years in rural areas as well. Certain rural areas will see federal government matches on community projects to as much as 90%.

For electric infrastructure upgrades in rural America, as much as $1 billion is authorized to help improve the electric grid in towns or unincorporated areas with 10,000 people or fewer. Another $1 billion is set aside for rural water grants as well.

USDA just last week rolled out nearly $5.2 billion in rural electric and water infrastructure loans and grants, while the White House also declared the federal government would move to replace all lead pipes nationally that tie into community drinking systems. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

The new law also includes $7.5 billion for electric charging stations, which is smaller than what President Joe Biden had proposed earlier in the spring. Biden originally wanted to build out 500,000 charging stations nationally. Still, the White House sees the prospects of creating that many charging stations as the administration focuses on expanding the sale of electric vehicles.

As the legislation was written during this year's drought, Western senators also added tens of billions of dollars for water projects, such as upgrading and expanding Bureau of Reclamation dam and canal projects. The bill includes $50 billion for various water infrastructure, including increased storage and irrigation conveyance.

Funds will go to address aging infrastructure such as major rehabilitation and replacement, as well as provide grants to construct smaller surface water and groundwater storage projects. At least $1 billion will go for water recycling and reuse. Another $1 billion will fund water projects in rural communities.

Another $500 million will go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations (PL-566 projects) to help reduce the project backlog. DTN had highlighted in June how the USDA watershed program addresses both drought and flood risk in rural areas, as well as expanding rural drinking water supplies.

(https://www.dtnpf.com/…)

At least $400 million will go toward a "waterSMART" grant program, and another $300 million will help implement the Colorado Drought Contingency Plan, including $50 million specifically for the Upper Basin.

Another $8.58 billion in the bill goes for carbon capture projects, including $2.5 billion for the Department of Energy to develop commercial scale projects.

Along with the funding were other provisions. Livestock and trucking groups had backed language in the bill such as the Haulers of Agriculture and Livestock (HAULS) Act, which would allow livestock haulers to bypass normal trucking hours-of-service limitations if the haulers are within 150 miles of their final destination.

To help address the shortage of truckers, the bill also has provisions to open interstate trucking to commercial drivers as young as 18. The White House last week announced it would move ahead with plans for a pilot project for younger truck drivers.

Politics, as usual, came into play on the infrastructure bill. In the Senate, 19 Republican senators backed the bill in August, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. In the House, though, 13 Republicans joined 215 Democrats in backing the bill. At least some GOP members saw backlash for backing the bill.

The bill was supported by groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation, groups generally more aligned with Republicans. The bill also garnered backing from groups representing blue-collar workers such as construction unions and long-haul truckers.

For much of the year, the infrastructure bill was tied as a two-part agenda with a $1.7 trillion social spending package called the Build Back Better Act. House Democrats passed the infrastructure bill in early November with a belief the Senate would take up the Build Back Better Act, which deals with childcare, taxes and roughly $27 billion in conservation funds for USDA. Late last week, Senate Democrats, with no GOP backing, began to recognize they likely would not pass the Build Back Better bill this year.

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Editor's Note:

You can find No. 10 in DTN's top 10 list at https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton