Philbrick: What does the federal infrastructure bill mean for Californians?
A Caltrain engine at Diridon Station is pictured in this file photo.

A $1 trillion infrastructure bill is now coming to a local road, bridge or railway near you. The funding of this once-in-a-generation bill is history-making with some of the most significant investments in public transit, bridge repair, clean energy and passenger rail in decades—and in some cases the nation’s history. But what does the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act actually mean for Californians?

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law mid-November, rolling forward a significant portion of his domestic spending agenda and propelling billions into transportation improvements across the nation. The goals of the package are ambitious and varied: Many make infrastructure improvements through the lens of climate action and sustainability, including building a national network of electric vehicle chargers, the electrification of thousands of school and transit buses and repairing roads and bridges with a focus on climate change mitigation.

But infrastructure isn’t the bill’s only aim. It also includes immediate community-oriented actions such as taking steps to eliminate the nation’s lead service lines and pipes, delivering clean drinking water to up to 10 million American families and more than 400,000 schools and childcare facilities—including in tribal nations and disadvantaged communities—as well as efforts to connect every American to reliable high-speed internet.

Modernizing transportation for millions of Americans ultimately means improving health, safety and sustainability—but what will that look like in the Golden State?

California alone is set to receive $25.3 billion for highway programs and $4.2 billion for bridge replacement over the next five years. The state would also receive $9.45 billion to improve public transportation options statewide, $384 million over five years to support expanding the state’s electric vehicle charging network, $1.5 billion for airport improvements and more. A full breakdown of the bill can be found here.

Even with Senate Bill 1 funding, this investment in the state’s infrastructure is desperately needed. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave California a C- grade on its infrastructure report card. In California, 1,536 bridges and more than 14,220 miles of highway are considered to be in poor condition, and commute times have increased by 14.6% in the last decade. Meanwhile, commuters who utilize public transit spend an extra 66.6% of their time commuting for work—and this more harshly impacts non-white households, which are 1.6 times more likely to commute via public transportation.

Indeed, such equity issues in infrastructure have a long history in the nation. Biden’s initially proposed plan, The American Jobs Plan, included $20 billion to redress historic inequities and reconnect communities. This plan explicitly mentions projects that historically divided communities, referencing the highways that were sometimes purposefully built through Black and brown communities or—as was the case in Los Angeles—around them as an isolating barrier to reinforce and support segregation. The American Jobs Plan, however, was scrapped for the recently passed bipartisan plan, and among other differences, the $20 billion has been reduced to $1 billion.

Although the bipartisan bill fails to address many decades of historic infrastructure inequity, it does allocate $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across the state—545,000 Californians currently lack access—and $3.5 billion over five years to improve water infrastructure across the state to ensure all communities have access to clean, safe drinking water.

Moving forward, the bill will alleviate and mitigate some major infrastructure issues of our state and country. Every year, the average driver in California pays $799 in costs from driving on roads in need of repair, and funding from this bill will go toward repairing and rebuilding these roads and other critical infrastructure.

Additional efforts to further transportation equity, sustainability and safety are needed, but for now we can be thankful for the steps taken to improve safety for all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians on the road.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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