08/13/2021

Bill to rebuild public structures moves ahead

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The Senate gave a big bipartisan thumbs-up on Aug. 10 to a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would rebuild the nation’s rickety roads and bridges, expand broadband internet and create buffers against the climate crisis—all key parts of President Joe Biden’s promise to “build back better.”

freeway overpass construction

Besides the well-known aspects of the bill, it also would provide $65 billion to connect every American to reliable high-speed internet; $55 billion to begin replacing the nation’s lead pipes and service lines, providing clean drinking water for millions; $39 billion for public transit, the largest federal investment ever; and $11 billion for transportation safety.

The deal between Democrats and Republicans would start delivering thousands of electric school buses nationwide, helping school districts buy clean, American-made, zero-emission vehicles, according to a White House fact sheet. Right now, 95 percent of the roughly 475,000 school buses in the U.S. run on diesel, which is linked to asthma and other health problems. Every day, more than 25 million children and thousands of school bus drivers breathe polluted air on their rides to and from school.

The legislation also would provide funding to state and local governments to strengthen cybersecurity, which would protect against ransomware and other attacks on our nation’s digital infrastructure, such as one that crippled the city of Baltimore in 2019.

Although it provided less than was hoped for, the bill would make “the largest long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “While we often think of infrastructure as roads, transit and bridges, this deal covers much more, offering the potential to transform the American economy to one that offers well-paying union jobs so working people can provide for their families; makes progress on the climate crisis by promoting clean energy transmission and electrifying thousands of school and transit buses; and modernizes our country’s transit, bridge and pipe systems so every American gets to work, and many more can access clean drinking water.”

A step forward for racial justice

In addition to clean water, public transit and high-speed internet, the lack of which particularly affects African Americans, the Biden administration is proud of providing a racial justice component for “reconnecting communities” divided along racial lines by the interstate highway system.

woman on subway platform

Too often, the White House says, highway projects split apart communities—like the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans and Interstate 81 in Syracuse—or left out people most in need of affordable transportation. Significant parts of the highway system plowed right through Black neighborhoods. The agreement creates a first-ever program to reconnect communities divided by highways. The program will fund planning, design, demolition and reconstruction of street grids, parks or other infrastructure through $1 billion in dedicated funding.

In short, the bipartisan infrastructure deal will expand the economy and make it more sustainable, resilient and just. It will create family-sustaining jobs—adding, on average, around 2 million jobs per year over a decade.

School repairs await ‘reconciliation’ bill

Despite the win on “hard” infrastructure, climate and justice, the bulk of what public education advocates seek may be coming in a second bill, a “budget reconciliation” package that Senate Democrats voted to move forward before dawn on Aug. 11. This measure would provide trillions in funding for social or human infrastructure—the providers of public services who keep our social safety net in good trim—but we’ll have to keep advocating for funds to repair and rebuild crumbling schools.

playground monkey bars

In May, the AFT joined 16 other education groups urging congressional leaders to include in the reconciliation bill at least $130 billion in funding for public school repairs. These advocates strongly urge Congress to include at least $100 billion in direct grants and $30 billion in bonds for K-12 public school facilities, which is consistent with the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act (S. 96/H.R. 604). They say Congress must address an issue that preceded the pandemic: outdated schools falling apart due to decades of neglect.

Just last month, the AFT and the National Education Association sent a letter to each member of the Senate, strongly urging them to support the school infrastructure bill and its $130 billion for public school buildings. The letter points out that modernizing schools is an investment with broad bipartisan support from 62 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Independents and 87 percent of Democrats, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll.

The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act would create a $100 billion grant program and $30 billion tax-credit bond program targeting high-poverty schools, which would upgrade heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in a climate-friendly way.

America spends more on public school facilities than any part of our infrastructure except roads and highways. Yet, many of our 100,000 public school buildings are poorly equipped or in ragged physical condition. These buildings are so decrepit that they undermine student learning. They are literally freezing in winter, baking in summer, with windows that won’t open or close. Their leaky roofs let in rain that creates moldy walls, floors and ceilings, aggravating children’s asthma. And many of the older buildings still contain asbestos and lead, toxic chemicals that harm children at even the most minute levels.

Senate moves social infrastructure

The $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill seeks to include many of President Biden’s plans for preschool, healthcare and other family-supporting programs referred to as the “care economy.”

After more than 14 hours of voting on amendments, the Senate adopted on party lines a 92-page framework for the Democrats’ package of climate and social initiatives, including placeholders for subsidized child care, expanded Medicare, and paid family and medical leave. Once both the House and Senate have approved the budget instructions, the reconciliation process will be unlocked, which will let the Senate majority pass a final bill with 51 votes instead of 60.

The House will return from its August recess early to consider the budget resolution during the week of Aug. 23. A final bill will be voted on later this fall.

Taken together, the two bills, moving “in tandem,” promise to make life better for every American—but especially for AFT members who provide state and local public services, from transportation engineers to bridge inspectors to HVAC workers.

Weingarten is calling on Congress to reverse the historic neglect facing our schools by incorporating the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act into the funding package, and by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act so that the voices of working people are heard, and our nation’s economy works for all of us.

With his sudden passing, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka won’t get to see the rebirth of the public tunnels, bridges and highways he fought so hard for. And there’s still a long road ahead before all varieties of public infrastructure—from public institutions to the people who keep them humming—receive the resources they need. But for now, Congress seems to be on President Biden’s freshly repaved road to build back better.

“President Biden has worked with both parties to deliver a plan that positions working people and businesses to compete and win in the 21st century,” Weingarten says. “This deal will change American lives for the better.”

[Annette Licitra/Getty Images]