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President Biden Hopes a New Infrastructure Effort Can Bridge Divide

Mon February 15, 2021 - National Edition
Associated Press

President Joe Biden is hoping that launching an effort to build roads and bridges also can help to unite Democrats and Republicans in a time of sharp partisan divisions.

Biden met with lawmakers from both parties at the White House to discuss infrastructure on Feb. 11.

"I've been around long enough," he said, "that infrastructure wasn't a Republican or a Democratic issue."

Biden specifically mentioned the potential for transportation improvement projects in the states of the senators attending the meeting, signaling that lawmakers might be willing to cooperate to make their voters' lives better.

He highlighted the need for repairs to "a lot of bridges in West Virginia," with a nod to Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who was among those in attendance at the meeting.

The president also referenced Route 9 in his home state of Delaware, which he shares with Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, the committee chairman, also in the Oval Office meeting, and who had discussed these issues with Biden the previous week.

"The American people desperately want us to bring our roads, trains and bridges out of the last century and into the future," Carper said after the Feb. 11 meeting.

Carper pledged to work on a transportation bill that will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by cars and trucks and boosting electric cars.

"I'm glad it's at the top of the administration's agenda," he commented.

The current authorization bill for surface transportation expires in September, so "there is no time to waste," Carper explained, adding that he expects bipartisan support for the reauthorization bill in the Senate.

Also at the meeting were Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (virtually), Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland.

Inhofe later told reporters that the meeting with Biden was "very good, very good.

"One reason is that I've known the president forever, and we've worked on highway bills before," Inhofe said. "The main thing that I want to be careful on is when you're working on infrastructure that's high dollar stuff."

Biden said there are "a number of things out there that the American people are looking for us to step up" and do. During the presidential campaign, Biden committed to deploying $2 trillion on infrastructure and clean energy investments over four years.

His campaign pledged that millions of jobs would flow from repairing roads, building electric vehicle charging stations, weatherizing buildings, improving access to public transit and updating the U.S. power grid to be carbon-pollution free by 2035.

Since the pandemic began in February 2020, the United States has lost 256,000 construction jobs, lowering total construction employment to 7.4 million. Still, total construction spending has increased slightly to an annualized rate of $1.49 trillion, according to the Census Bureau. About a quarter of that spending comes from the federal, state and local governments.

Biden has been warned that his push for $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief might hamper a later push to get bipartisan support for infrastructure improvements. In a speech earlier this month to the Senate, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said a party-line vote on financial relief would "poison the well" for infrastructure.

"I think it's going to be harder if we start off on the wrong foot, if we start off in a purely partisan way," Portman said.

The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University released an analysis Feb. 10 about the infrastructure needs of 134 cities. Its survey found cities prioritizing transportation and water and climate projects, but also projects to address the fallout from the pandemic such as broadband access, emergency response and health facilities, and public transit for essential workers.

"Mayors and other local regional leaders around the country are very much in alignment with what President Biden has talked about, especially with climate change," said Bill Fulton, director of the institute. "But it's clear that the pandemic has changed infrastructure needs."

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