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Virginia ready to roll with projects as Biden signs $1 trillion infrastructure bill

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Mayo Bridge

Richmond’s 108-year-old Mayo Bridge is one of many sites and structures local and state officials say could benefit from the infrastructure package.

Aubrey Layne had spent the past seven and a half years helping Virginia prepare for the kinds of investments the federal government is poised to make in a $1 trillion pubic infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed on Monday.

Layne was transportation secretary and then finance secretary under two Democratic governors, but now he’s advising an incoming Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, on how to best take advantage of the opportunity offered to Virginia by massive investments in the public infrastructure that supports the economy.

He says the state has programs in place to put the money to work, especially in transportation projects such as roads and bridges, passenger rail and public transit, airports and the Port of Virginia.

“I think the governor is going to be handed a pretty good roadmap he can look at,” said Layne, now senior vice president at Sentara Healthcare and a member of the transition team that Youngkin named to prepare him to take office in January.

The infrastructure package that Congress adopted after months of haggling among Democrats over a separate $1.75 trillion spending bill, passed with significant bipartisan support in the Senate in August. It received crucial votes from 13 Republicans in the House of Representatives to make the biggest investment in the nation’s infrastructure in more than a generation.

Youngkin’s viewYoungkin addressed the infrastructure package for the first time since his election Wednesday in Quantico, where he attended a ceremony marking the 246th birthday of the Marine Corps.

“Mine’s far less of a good or bad political decision,” he said of his position on the bill. “There’s going to be good support for Virginia that comes out of that bill, and right now we’re trying to make sure we identify where the support for Virginia can come.”

Youngkin said Virginia has many infrastructure needs, from broadband access to making sure roads and bridges are reinforced and maintained, to building connections to the “leading capabilities” of the Port of Virginia, which he called “one of the great natural wonders in the world.”

“I’m really focused on making sure Virginia gets moving and I think the infrastructure bill will help us,” he said.

TransportationThe package includes $7 billion for transportation projects in Virginia — most of it existing federal commitments reauthorized under the bill, but also more than $1.5 billion on new transportation projects.

About one-third of that will flow through the funding programs that Virginia set up in 2015 to allocate money raised through a $6 billion state transportation package two years earlier; one-third will provide new money to repair and replace roads and bridges over the next five years; and another third will go into programs to reduce carbon pollution contributing to global warming and protecting road networks against flooding from sea-level rise.

“It’s obviously a substantial amount of money. ... This will almost certainly allow the state to bring forward some big projects and fund those sooner than it would have,” Justin Brown, senior associate director at the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, told state legislators before a positive staff report about Virginia’s transportation infrastructure program.

The private companies that build roads and bridges or supply materials for concrete and asphalt say they are ready, with a work force that never stopped during the pandemic, but know it will take time for the money to flow through the system.

“The full impact won’t be felt until 2025,” said Gordon Dixon, executive vice president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, representing more than 300 member companies. “There is this expectation that all this money from Washington, D.C., is going to be flooding into Virginia. It’s not going to happen that fast.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., was a leader of a bipartisan group of 10 senators who fashioned the framework for the legislation last spring and summer, with help from Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, and the Problem Solvers Coalition in the House.

“This legislation isn’t just about paving crumbling roads, replacing toxic water pipes, expanding high speed internet, or revamping transportation systems – this is about putting our nation on the fast track to economic prosperity,” Warner said in a statement on Friday.

Spanberger said, “It’s money for Virginia, just across the board.”

The infrastructure package will provide at least $100 million for the accelerating the state effort to achieve universal broadband access in all parts of Virginia, closing a yawning gap for high-speed internet service that proved critical to work and study during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will provide $1.2 billion to improve public transportation in Virginia by modernizing bus and rail fleets. It includes big investments in passenger rail, including $22 billion in grants to Amtrak that will be used, in part, to expand passenger rail service between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, as well as Hampton Roads and western Virginia.

Virginia airports will receive an estimated $386 million over five years to make improvements in their infrastructure, such as runways and terminals. The Port of Virginia, including the terminal on the James River in Richmond, will be eligible for funding through $17 billion in grants nationally.

Replacing water pipesThe state expects to receive $378 million over five years to replace lead water pipes and other drinking water systems, said Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, who sees that investment as vital to public health, particularly for children in under-served communities.

“We need to replace those pipes,” McEachin said Friday. “We need to bring them up to 21st century standards.”

The package also includes $1 billion for grants to communities to address old wrongs from transportation projects built through minority communities—such as construction of what became Interstate 95 through Jackson Ward in downtown Richmond.

The bill is expected to provide at least $106 million over the next five years to install electric vehicle charging stations in Virginia, and include funding to replace school buses to reduce the pollution they emit. It contains money to clean up hazardous waste sites, make the electric power grid more secure and reliable, and to guard against cyber attacks.

The consequences of climate change are addressed through investments in transportation, but also to prevent wildfires, protect against flooding and protect ecosystems in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

“When you talk about flooding, it’s not just along the coast of Virginia, it’s not just storm surge,” Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine told legislators on JLARC last week. “It really is affecting flooding across the entire commonwealth.”

HighwaysThe four Republicans in Virginia’s congressional delegation voted against the bill in the House, but Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, said he strongly supports investments in roads, bridges, passenger rail, broadband and other pillars of the package.

Wittman, whose district includes Hanover and New Kent counties in the Richmond area, is particularly focused on critical highway improvements, such as widening Interstate 64 east of Richmond between New Kent and James City counties and easing traffic congestion at bottlenecks along I-95 between Richmond and Washington.

He contends that most of the $550 billion in new spending in the bill won’t go to traditional forms of infrastructure, but instead to what he called priorities of the “Green New Deal” that progressive Democrats advocate to combat climate change and protect the environment.

He’s also concerned that the bill gives too much discretion to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to determine how to allocate money that will go through new competitive grant programs.

“Virginia is ready,” Wittman agreed. “The only unknown is what are the requirements going to be at the federal level getting the money awarded to Virginia.”

“My hope is the money gets here as fast as they can and directly to state governments because the commonwealth is in the best position to make those decisions,” he said.

Programs in placeState officials say programs already are in place to handle much of the funding, whether for transportation or drinking water.

“To the extent we have existing programs where the dollars can flow through, I would expect we’d do that,” Secretary of Finance Joe Flores said Friday. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”

Layne helped create some of those programs when he was secretary of transportation under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, working with Republicans who then controlled the General Assembly. Programs such as Smart Scale allow the state to rank transportation by quantifiable measures, such as traffic congestion and safety, to determine where to spend limited funds.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the political process here that it is in other states,” he said.

In its report last week, JLARC staff said, “Virginia uses an effective process to identify needed improvements to the transportation system.”

Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said that didn’t just happen. Last year, legislators adopted an omnibus transportation bill that raised state and regional gasoline taxes — including one Youngkin wants to partly roll back — created a passenger rail authority and set the stage for a new way of funding projects as reliance on vehicle fuel taxes wanes.

“A number of us took very difficult votes in order to get the funding to do many of those projects you talk about,” Howell said, “and I hope nothing happens over the next few years to set us back.”

Layne said the infrastructure package could help Youngkin fulfill his campaign pledge to temporarily suspend collection of a 5-cent-per-gallon gas tax that took effect July 1. The temporary rollback would cost the state an estimated $200 million, but he said the additional federal aid could offset the cost without hurting pending projects.

“I don’t think there are many projects out there that would have to be stalled,” he said.

On the other hand, Layne said, the new governor would have to get General Assembly support to suspend a portion of the state gas tax, which, at 26.2 cents per gallon, is about 10 cents per gallon lower than in neighboring North Carolina. “It may not show up at the pump,” he said.

Joe McAndrew, transportation expert at the corporate-led Greater Washington Partnership, said Layne and Valentine had “done an amazing amount of work and it’s been bipartisan every step of the way.”

“We have every reason to believe that is going to continue going forward,” McAndrew said.

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