Billions of dollars for public construction projects would come raining down on Minnesota in the coming years if President Joe Biden's push for a massive infrastructure package is successful.
Fresh off passing $1.9 trillion in COVID relief, the new Democratic White House is turning next to an even more ambitious spending proposal. The Biden administration is briefing congressional allies and interest groups on hopes for at least $3 trillion in new federal money for a range of domestic priorities, including $1 trillion for roads, bridges and other transportation projects nationwide.
"We're standing on the edge of what could be the most exciting time in terms of transportation infrastructure in at least 50 years," said Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Her national counterpart, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is selling Biden's plans in historic terms: "This is a moment the likes of which we haven't seen since President Eisenhower implemented the interstate highway plan," he said in a recent speech.
Almost $5 billion is now bound for Minnesota state and local governments from the COVID relief bill, intended to ease a pandemic-driven strain on public services. The administration has not yet detailed an infrastructure plan, but the size of spending under discussion carries the potential to transform the state's economy and physical landscape.
Such a large infusion of federal money, Kelliher said, would probably allow the state to simultaneously pursue big-ticket megaprojects and accelerate maintenance schedules on its backlog of neglected roads and bridges around Minnesota.
That could mean money to replace the Blatnik Bridge between Duluth and Superior, Wis. — a project likely to run north of $1 billion all told. Or to more rapidly build out a full bus rapid transit system across the Twin Cities, which DFL and Republican lawmakers alike have supported. Or for the sweeping proposal to build a land bridge over Interstate 94 in St. Paul, with a goal of reconnecting a historic Black neighborhood and a price tag also likely to exceed $1 billion.
State Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he's worried that a massive infusion of federal money in a short period could lead to waste or suffer from lack of spending oversight.
Newman said the large dollar figures being thrown around constitute more debt for American taxpayers. The Biden administration is considering increasing income taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund infrastructure, making support from Republican lawmakers less likely.
"You're not going to be able to cover the kind of money they are sending out and want to send out, plus all the debt we already have — you can try to raise income taxes, corporate taxes, sales taxes all you want," Newman said. "So you're talking about borrowed money."
But the quick path of the COVID relief package showed that congressional Democrats want to capitalize on control of the executive and legislative branches while they have it. Another huge pot of money could follow this fall, with Congress due to reauthorize a federal transportation funding act before a September deadline.
Passing the stimulus package "has energized, on the Democratic side of Congress, it has members saying we have to act — we have to act big, we have to act now," said Bill Harper, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from St. Paul. McCollum is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, which sets federal spending, and Harper said he thinks many interest and advocacy groups are perhaps not prepared to properly vie for a deluge of new federal resources.
"There's a level of skepticism because it feels like we've been here before and people and groups have just developed an assumption they're not going to get money from the federal government, so they're not investing time and energy in this right now," Harper said.
Some Minnesota interests have started to strategize.
"Our argument is that we are in a position to transform our system," said Sam Rockwell, executive director of Move MN, a pro-transit coalition. The group's leaders are lining up meetings with members of Congress as they tout a 10-year, $6.5 billion bus rapid transit investment.
"What we want is a transportation system that responds to what people need, not what cars need," Rockwell said. "And we feel like that's what we're hearing from the Biden administration, and from Secretary Buttigieg especially."
An expansive definition of infrastructure is likely in whatever Biden proposes, encompassing not just transportation systems but also power grids, broadband networks, wastewater treatment facilities and affordable housing projects. Progressive policy goals will influence project lists and construction standards.
"We have to look at transportation through an equity lens, a racial justice lens, in terms of access to jobs for a diverse group of people, and through a climate lens, knowing that transportation is the single greatest source of greenhouse gases," said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee.
Major business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have long demanded bigger infrastructure investments from Washington.
"It's one of the few issues in D.C. where you often get good bipartisan support, but when you get down to the details it's still a fight about how you pay for it," said Bentley Graves, director of transportation policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
Labor leaders see a bonanza of job opportunities for their members. Megaprojects — building a stadium, replacing a bridge — are a proven way to pull young people into the trades, said Adam Duininck, director of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.
"These are jobs bills," Duininck said. "You do more big projects, you recruit more people, you bring more of them into the industry and you help them start a career."
Duininck is a former chairman of the Metropolitan Council. He said he hopes Minnesota gets enough federal support to mount big projects but still tend to the nuts and bolts of existing networks.
It's a need that grows as populations rise and existing systems age and crumble. The Minnesota Department of Transportation says it would need $18 billion in additional revenue in the next 20 years to maintain the current state transportation network at acceptable levels, never mind new projects.
Kelliher said she's particularly concerned about what she calls the "bridge bubble" — the large and growing number of bridges in the state that were built more than 50 years ago and have never been replaced.
Gov. Tim Walz released a scaled-back transportation proposal this year compared with 2019, when he unsuccessfully pushed for a state gas tax increase. Kelliher said transportation took a back seat this year to pandemic recovery. But what she's hearing about the Biden administration's plans have made her hopeful.
"I have to say, they are big numbers," Kelliher said. "But they are numbers that we could, frankly, utilize in Minnesota in a short period of time."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413