Biden’s infrastructure plan: What it could mean for NC roads

Vice President Kamala Harris is coming to North Carolina on Monday to tout the benefits of President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal.

But what could the extensive policy mean for the state?

The administration has not released specific projects that could be funded and Congress, as it begins to write the legislation, is unlikely to include that level of specificity, either.

If the proposal becomes law — and it has a long way to go before that happens — states and localities could apply for grants for their own projects, allowing them to prioritize and pitch their own projects.

So what are the priorities being talked about in North Carolina? Here are some things to know.

Fixing bridges and roads

North Carolina has 1,460 bridges and more than 3,116 miles of highway in poor condition, the White House said in a fact sheet about North Carolina infrastructure needs. The bridge number comes from a 2021 report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

The six most traveled structurally deficient bridges in North Carolina are in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, according to the report.

In Wake, those are Interstate 40 over Walnut Creek, I-40 over Big Branch Creek and Interstate 440 over State Road 3007 and Southern Railroad. In Mecklenburg, they are Interstate 277 and NC 16 over U.S. 29/NC 49 (Graham Street), I-277 and NC 16 over Brevard Street and I-277 and NC 16 over North College Street.

If any bridges are deemed unsafe, they will be closed, the North Carolina Department of Transportation said.

Biden’s plan allocates more than $600 billion to roads and bridges, including $115 billion for repairs.

Highway projects

NCDOT provided McClatchy with a list of 10 significant federal aid projects that are important to the department and which have activity scheduled in the next several years:

Raleigh to Richmond

A direct train route from Raleigh to Richmond is the “missing link” in the Southeast corridor’s high-performance rail, said Jason Ornther, NCDOT’s rail division director.

Amtrak has a route that connects the capitals of North Carolina and Virginia, but it winds to the east through Selma before heading north. The so-called 166-mile S-line between Raleigh and Petersburg could cut about 90 minutes from the trip, in part because it would avoid some of the congestion and track conflicts along the other route.

The project has been kicked around since the early 1990s.

“It’s been a significant effort to get to this point,” Ornther said. “We really do feel like we’re getting a lot closer to this opportunity becoming a reality.”

It would cost between $3 and $4 billion to make the entire connection complete. But both states have been making incremental improvements, including the purchase of right-of-way lands. North Carolina, thanks to a 2020 federal grant, has enough to complete its land acquisition.

Though its major function would be intercity travel and as a gateway to the Northeast corridor, the line could also double as commuter rail from North Raleigh and beyond into the city center, said Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat and longtime proponent of the project.

“What’s attractive about a transit or rail project is its potential to create more options for individuals and while doing so reduce congestion, reduce pollution and create a more environmentally sustainable and often more affordable way to get around,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during a call with reporters on Monday.

Amtrak included the direct Raleigh-to-Richmond service on its 2035 vision plan released after Biden’s infrastructure announcement. The extensive Amtrak plan also includes new lines to Wilmington and Asheville.

Biden’s plan includes $85 billion for public transportation, mostly trains. That is separate from the $600 billion for roads and bridges.

The advanced status of planning and work already done on the Raleigh-to-Richmond line could help when — and if — there is money to go around.

“There’s obviously a very high standard for quality and delivery when it comes to the outlay of federal dollars. So any grant program that the department is administering is going to look for a really good plan that has really good, thoughtful execution and delivery throughout,” Buttigieg said.

The big picture

In addition to roads, bridges and public transportation, Biden’s plan includes $100 billion meant to provide universal, reliable, high-speed and affordable internet coverage to everyone.

At least 100,000 North Carolina students lack a reliable internet connection at home, and Gov. Roy Cooper suggested a $250 million bond to expand broadband late last year. Biden’s plan includes $100 billion.

It’s the other types of infrastructure included in the bill — clean and safe drinking water, affordable housing, child care, manufacturing, home energy, clean energy and veterans health — that Republicans have mocked and bashed.

“It’s a liberal wish list that Hill Democrats have been carrying around for a long time. And the attempt is to fundamentally restructure the role of the federal government, to expand it beyond its traditional role that we’ve seen over the last 50 years,” North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry said Wednesday.

Biden’s proposal has met resistance among Republicans for its expansive definition of infrastructure as well as the way it is paid for — through an increase in the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%. In 2017, the Republican-backed tax bill reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.

Price, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation and housing, has had input into the plan. He discussed it with Biden and others in his administration before the plan was put together. He was one of eight members of Congress invited to a discussion of the plan at the White House with Biden and Harris on Tuesday.

“There certainly is a general acknowledgment this is a pressing national problem,” Price said in a telephone interview after the meeting. “The rationale for this is widely accepted. There is some disagreement over how widely you define infrastructure and some disagreement about how you pay for it.”

Price said whatever bill comes out of Congress will not include specific projects and Buttigieg said that it’s doubtful any bill would have a “state-by-state allocation.”

Instead his department and other federal agencies would use existing programs to distribute the money based on well-established formulas. He said some projects, such as electric vehicle charging stations, may require new authorities.

General Motors announced in January that it would only sell electric vehicles by 2035, and other car companies could follow suit.

Said Buttigieg: “There may need to be a new program stood up in order to deliver some of the things we’re seeking.”

McClatchy White House correspondent Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at [email protected]