President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill with Ken Alex and Ethan Elkind

By Rochelle Gluzman and Judah Marsden

Special Episode

President Biden has introduced his proposal to improve the nation’s infrastructure and help implement a more robust green energy system over the next 8 years in his roughly $2 trillion infrastructure plan, called the American Jobs Plan. 

While ambitious and in need of crucial bipartisan support, the American Jobs Plan targets more than just the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. President Biden aims to use this plan to benefit communities of color, rural Americans, women and care workers, and anyone left behind by today’s economy. It also aims to tackle climate change in myriad ways and put the United States in position to out-compete China. 

However, given the difficulty of getting a bill of this magnitude passed in Congress (if it passes at all) the resulting plan will look very different from President Biden’s initial proposal. So the question is, what will remain?  

At present, the version of this plan with “bipartisan” support is one bereft of the actual climate solutions, and many progressives in Congress have stated that they will not support the plan without the crucial climate components. 

The Biden Infrastructure Plan aims to cover a wide range of problems in the United States. Here is a brief overview of the scope and reach of this plan. 

According to the White House Fact Sheet, the American Jobs Plan aims to: 

  • “Fix highways, rebuild bridges, upgrade ports, airports and transit systems… 
  • Deliver clean drinking water, a renewed electric grid, and high-speed broadband to all Americans. Build, preserve, and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings, modernize our nation’s schools and child care facilities, and upgrade veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings… 
  • Solidify the infrastructure of our care economy by creating jobs and raising wages and benefits for essential home care workers. Revitalize manufacturing, secure U.S. supply chains, invest in R&D, and train Americans for the jobs of the future… 
  • Create good-quality jobs that pay prevailing wages in safe and healthy workplaces while ensuring workers have a free and fair choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers.”

A major part of the American Jobs Plan also involves reworking the current transportation infrastructure. A decline in public investment in transportation infrastructure over the past few decades has left transportation systems in less than ideal conditions. In order to address this situation, President Biden is calling on Congress to invest in all facets of transportation from roads to bridges to rails. 

According to the White House Fact Sheet, the plan involves an investment of an addition $621 billion to:

  • “Repair roads and bridges
  • Modernize public transit
  • Invest in reliable passenger and freight rail service
  • Create more jobs in electrifying vehicles
  • Improve ports, waterways, and airports.
  • Redress historic inequities and build the future of transportation infrastructure
  • Invest resources wisely to deliver infrastructure projects that produce real results”

In order to make American Infrastructure more resilient to the effects of climate change, President Biden and his team propose to invest $50 billion to defend vulnerable communities from the effects of climate change and safeguard critical infrastructure and services. Additionally, in order to protect vulnerable communities and the environment from harm, the Biden plan aims to maximize the resilience of land and water resources by protecting and restoring nature-based infrastructure, or forests, grasslands, watersheds, oceans, etc.

The American Jobs Plan also proposes to rebuild clean drinking water infrastructure to ensure all communities have access to drinkable, non-polluted water. To do this, President Biden proposes a replacement of all lead pipes and service lines by calling on Congress to invest $45 million in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) grants. Additionally, this plan seeks to modernize existing but aging water systems to support a clean water infrastructure across rural America. 

In addition to revitalizing the country’s digital infrastructure by building high-speed broadband and reducing the cost of broadband internet, the American Jobs Plan also aims to upgrade the power infrastructure. The country’s electric grid needs an upgrade. With a more resilient grid, according to the White House Fact Sheet, President Biden hopes to achieve lower energy bills, improved air quality and public health, the creation of many good jobs to support this new infrastructure, and a tangible means of achieving 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. 

To achieve all this, the presidents calls on Congress to invest $100 billion to:

  • “Build a more resilient electric transmission system…
  • Spur jobs modernizing power generation and delivering clean electricity…
  • Put the energy industry to work plugging orphan oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines…
  • Remediate and redevelop idle real property, and spur the buildout of critical physical, social, and civic infrastructure in distressed and disadvantaged communities….
  • Build next generation industries in distressed communities…
  • Mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers.”

To tackle the crisis of unaffordable housing, President Biden aims to invest in building energy efficient, resilient and affordable homes, schools, learning facilities, veterans hospitals, federal buildings and more. With this, he proposes to solidify the infrastructure of the care economy which, as evidenced by women and essential workers during the Coronavirus pandemic, has been veering towards crisis for some time. Under Biden’s plan, there will be an expansion of long-term health services under Medicaid, as well as the creation of more care-jobs with the choice to join a union. 

Lastly, Biden’s infrastructure plan seeks to invest in research and development, to revitalize manufacturing and small businesses, and help train citizens to succeed in jobs for the future – jobs that include building a green energy economy. To do this, according the the White House Fact Sheet, the president calls on Congress to:

  • “Invest in R&D and the technologies of the future…
    • Advance U.S. leadership in critical technologies and upgrade America’s research infrastructure…
    • Establish the United States as a leader in climate science, innovation, and R&D…
    • Eliminate racial and gender inequities in research and development and science, technology, engineering, and math…
  • Retool and revitalize American manufacturers and small businesses:
    • Strengthen manufacturing supply chains for critical goods…
    • Protect Americans from future pandemics…
    • Jumpstart clean energy manufacturing through federal procurement… 
    • Increase access to capital for domestic manufacturers…
    • Create a national network of small business incubators and innovation hubs…
    • Partner with rural and Tribal communities to create jobs and economic growth in rural America…
  • Invest in Workforce Development:
    • Pair job creation efforts with next generation training programs…
    • Target workforce development opportunities in underserved communities…
    • Build the capacity of the existing workforce development and worker protection systems..”

 While the American Jobs Plan is comprehensive, expansive, and climate oriented, getting such a broad set of solutions to pass through Congress is proving difficult. Even under the rubric of infrastructure, and the promise of jobs and progress, the reality is that Congress likely will not pass the American Jobs Plan in anything close to its original form. However, this plan is gearing towards treating the climate crisis like a crisis, and imagining the American infrastructure through the lens of climate resilience and sustainability is one big step in the right direction. 

It remains to be seen what comes of this ambitious effort.



Ethan: Welcome to Climate Break. This is Ethan Elkind. I’m here with Ken Alex, my colleague from the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law–a longtime environmental attorney, one of the early sounders of the alarm in California, working with the California Attorney General’s office to promote action to address climate. And most recently, before he joined us at Berkeley Law, he was senior advisor to former California Governor Jerry Brown on climate change. He brings a lot of expertise to the topic and particularly at the state level. And today we want to talk about the Biden Infrastructure Bill and what that means for climate change. So, Ken, I’ll just start by asking you what really jumped out at you. What surprised you about the Biden Infrastructure Bill?

Ken: I wouldn’t say it surprised me, but I would say it pleased me that in almost every aspect of it, perhaps we can exclude home care, but even home care in some ways has some relevance to climate change, that there’s a climate change element to it, that they’re thinking very holistically about infrastructure, about how it’s interrelated with climate and jobs and, to my way of thinking, that’s exactly right. I commend them. The one thing that I’d like to see more of that I think will come out over time is to integrate the concept of community resilience further. There’s not surprisingly a pretty big focus on transportation, on bridges, on repair, on thinking about transportation a little differently. But throwing it back to you, what did you think about it? And you know, of course it’s just a proposal and it’s going to change, but it sets the nature of the discussion. 

Ethan: Well, I was really pleased to see all the details in it. They really touched on all the issues that are close to my heart when it comes to climate change. I mean, there’s even stuff in there around exclusionary zoning from suburban communities that don’t allow apartment buildings, that if they want to access some federal funds they have to rezone. And then also transmission lines. I mean, some of them you sort of expect, renewable energy and electric vehicles. Not that I take any of that for granted, but the transmission line piece I thought was also interesting because to really get to 100% decarbonized electric in the United States, we have to be able to tap into areas of the country that have amazing renewable resources, like the plains states with incredible wind resources. In California, we’d love to import wind energy from Wyoming to help provide jobs and economic gains for the folks in Wyoming, but we don’t have the transmission access to get the lines out there. And so I thought it was really interesting and showed the thoughtfulness of the proposal that there’s stuff in there around transmission line incentives, just as one thing that kind of jumped out at me. 

Otherwise, I think it really does touch on all the issues that you’d hope it would touch on. Maybe I would have liked to see more money for rail infrastructure. There’s about $80 billion in there as a proposal for passenger rail, like Amtrak style rail. And I would have loved to see more on that, because there’s a lot of potential rail corridors that are going to be fighting for that money. And, you know, you can imagine if there are 10 or 20 different projects, that’s a few billion, which is great. But, you know, thinking about like California high-speed rail, for example, they’re going to need a lot more than, you know, six or eight billion dollars to finish the system down to LA. And then meanwhile, in California, you’ve got a lot of politicians advocating for that money. You spent more locally in the San Francisco Bay area, like for a second Transbay tube or down in LA to electrify Metrolink and to extend or electrify and improve the rail connection from LA to San Diego. So that’s just within California. So I would have liked to see a little more money there. But overall, I think it’s really showing that climate policy is industrial policy and it’s about building things now. And it’s exciting to see all the stuff that could be built potentially if this bill passes. 

Ken: So, you know, Governor Brown was a very big supporter of high speed rail, and then it got going under him and primarily because of his pushing on it. I am a big supporter of it for many reasons. One is because it goes through the Central Valley and it links the coast and the central Valley in California. And I think if we don’t do that, economically the Central Valley is gonna get isolated from the coast and I don’t think that’s a good thing. One of the arguments that I’ve heard from the Biden Administration, which I think is absolutely essential and central to really the future of the country, is this idea that, you know, China the leaders snap their fingers and they say, okay, we’re going to build high speed rail connections. In a democracy that is extremely difficult to do. What California has found is trying to build a project like this is phenomenally complicated. Every local jurisdiction has some issue. Sometimes it’s political opposition, sometimes it’s ownership of property, sometimes it’s right of way. Every kind of set of issues. And you think about doing that on a statewide basis, it’s an incredibly complex set of legal issues, set of political issues, set of property issues on and on. 

And so one of the issues for the Biden Administration around big infrastructure development and projects, is: Can democracy compete with a different system like China’s that simply dictates what they’re going to build? And my hope is that we find a way through this. We need to have high speed rail. It’s part of being competitive in the 21st century. I think we need to figure out ways. And I know Ethan, you’ve been spending some time thinking about this set of issues. How do we move large scale projects more quickly while making sure that they’re equitable and environmentally sensitive? 

It’s a tough set of issues, but I think we’re missing one of the pieces of high speed rail potential. Yes, there needs to be federal, some billions of dollars. There needs to be state money, which, you know, there, there has been and there will be more. But there is a very significant potential for private investment. If you look at the Diridon Station Area around San Jose, most of that area now has been bought up by Google and others because they see the potential for substantial value around the high-speed rail and around a transit community for housing, for jobs, et cetera, et cetera, and that can be replicated throughout the state. 

But let me throw it back to you, because I know you’ve been thinking a lot about how you move complex projects more quickly  while still being sensitive to environmental sets of issues.

Ethan: Well, I think you raise a really critical issue because, you know, we certainly hope that the Infrastructure Bill, at least as it’s currently formulated, has a chance of passing because there’s so much good stuff in there for the climate. But shoveling money at things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. I mean, we’ve seen that with high speed rail. We’ve put a lot of billions towards high-speed rail and we frankly don’t have a lot to show for it right now. It’s got about a hundred something miles. Without even track being laid, just, you know, overducts, you know, and things like that. Infrastructure of this rail line without knowing if we are going to have anything to show for it. So that’s part of the danger here, that there’s money for projects, and then they get hung up on a lot of what you are attributing to democracy. 

But, you know, I don’t know if it’s really about democracy. For most of our history, although obviously imperfect and many people didn’t have the franchise, but we were able to build things. I mean, even California, up until the 1950s, 1960s, we’re able to build things, big things. I mean, we built interstate highways. We built, we’ve certainly built rail lines, we built bridges, and it didn’t take forever. And all that stopped. And some of it was bad stuff. I mean, we built dams and all those highways maybe we wish we didn’t have, at least not the length, the width of them, et cetera. But I wonder if this is so much about democracy or have we essentially tied ourselves into knots? The sort of, you know, the good intentions of every agency and statute that we passed collectively now has meant that if we had any big project, it’s got to get so many approvals, there are so many avenues for litigation, that essentially we’ve made it impossible to do anything big in the United States, not directly because of democracy, but because in some ways, because of the environmental movement, you know, a lot of the things that many people might support individually, but they’ve made big things, basically impossible or very costly and delayed to build.

Ken: Well, I’ll push back on you a little bit because you know, if you, if you look at the history, for example, of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is now iconic, you can’t really think of the Bay Area in San Francisco without it – that was subject to a lot of opposition. And in some analogous ways to what we’ve seen with high speed rail, every large-scale project is subject to opposition. And I put it to some extent at the feet of democracy because we have endless interest groups, we’re set up as a conglomeration of interest groups, some of which support things, some of which oppose things. And then, you also have the right to sue and that’s another democratic concept and construct for due process. 

We now have millions and millions more people, millions of more interests and more property ownership. So when you built highways in the fifties and sixties, there were property owners, but there certainly weren’t as many, and you didn’t go through as many communities. And I will say that particularly for disadvantaged communities, they had a lot less political voice. And so that’s another form of democracy that, you know, I think for the most part is a good thing that some of those communities now have at least some ability to raise their voices. But as you point out, that makes this extremely difficult. So is there a way for us in California? For example, we have now certain types of housing is by right, and it really reduces the ability to challenge. So you know, throwing it back to you, how do we find a balance that makes sure that communities aren’t overrun and yet we can still make progress on large-scale projects that we need to have?

Ethan: Well, I think we do have some good models here in California for how you can have some public input, but still get things done. I know you were involved in some of these, but for example, fast-tracking environmental review. It seems like a generally good principle to have decision makers do an assessment of what environmental impacts there might be consequences of a decision if they’re approving a project. So I think everyone can agree with that, but at the same time, it seems like some kind of time limit on it, bounding the issues of focus, and making sure that objections are good faith. When we’ve done that on some large projects, which I know you were involved with in the Brown Administration, like approving the  new Apple headquarters in Cupertino or the Sacramento Kings arena in downtown Sacramento. It’s not a flawless process, but those projects actually got built pretty rapidly. I mean, it would be amazing if we could have seen a similar kind of timescale for some of the big projects that we’d like to see on the public infrastructure side. 

So I think that does point maybe to some models for how we can fast track some things, but I think even before we get to that point I think, you know, taking a step back and trying to do some more advanced planning on things and, you know, Ken, you and I were involved in an effort to try to map out lands in the Central Valley in California that might be suitable for solar PV development. I think having that advanced planning where you bring stakeholders in advance, that can often forestall or avoid challenges to specific projects. Not all of them, but at least you’re starting from a farther point down the line. But then even when that happens, I think you still have to put some reasonable bounds on public input and outreach and timelines or else we’re just not going to see things get built.

Ken: So back in the Schwartzenegger Administration, they really wanted to move quickly on large scale solar installations. And so they appointed a couple of folks in the governor’s office to shepherd them. And that the Brown Administration continued that effort. So really a bi-partisan approach, that it’s very resource intensive, so you can’t do that for everything, but I like the idea of really having ombudspeople that have some ability to make decisions and move things forward. 

And, you know, so the governor’s office, I think at a state level is going to often be the relevant point of contact for that. And it does work, it can work. And it’s not easy because you have to bring a whole lot of groups that have very different views together and try to be constructive. And then you also, I think your point is correct that there needs to be an end point because if there isn’t that process will not get resolved. So I think there are ways to do this. I think we have to pick the projects and the efforts that we want to spend the time and the money on. And put the resources into getting those projects completed with a recognition that they will be completed, but the process will be inclusive, that voices of communities that are often shunted aside are not going to be shunted aside, but they’re not going to have veto power necessarily either. And how you get that balance is difficult, you know. And hopefully state, federal and local governments will think about some of those things. 

It puts me in mind of another set of projects that the Brown Administration started and that’s continuing in the Newsom Administration, some program called Transformative Climate Communities. One of my favorite government programs that put a lot of money towards efforts in disadvantaged communities. But before that money is invested, there is a very significant local process, where community groups, local governments, state government, NGOs come together and have to agree on what their approach is going to be before the state approves, giving them some substantial chunk of state money. And that approach has proven to be effective as well, and has really in a number of instances, helped understanding of communities working together. And it’s kind of one of the highlights of I think what we were able to do in the Brown Administration, and I’m very pleased so far to see it continue in the Newsom Administration. 

Ethan: Well, on your point about an ombudsman, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled in meetings of different folks trying to do the right thing on energy efficiency or projects, whether it’s carbon sequestration or renewables or whatever. And they always say, can we just get a one-stop shop for the permitting? I have seared in my mind this picture that a lawyer took of the permits for one of the solar projects they’re working on, and it was like probably 20 giant binders filled with the permit documentation. It felt like two different bookshelves. So I think standardizing and simplifying and centralizing permitting, you know, especially for these major projects would be really important. 

And our topic here is about the Biden Infrastructure Bill. So, given all of that, given democracy and the need to have a shepherd and all that, I mean, would you then recommend that the infrastructure package include some language or some incentives to try to think about the actual implementation? You know, recognizing that the money itself may not be enough if we can’t actually get the projects built.

Ken: You know, now that we’re talking about it, it’s always a question of whether you want to make it a requirement in a statute or regulation or leave it to the states to do it. But honestly I think it’s really central to being effective. And so if the language were reasonably broad, to leave the nuance to the states or to the local entities, I actually think I would be in favor of having a piece that said, you know, you need to shepherd these projects and assign an ombudsperson or people to, to be part of the process from the outset. I think that would be really beneficial. 

Ethan: Or maybe a prioritization, if you want to be competitive for these dollars, you need to show that you’re doing some work to set up that kind of a system in your state or locality. 

Ken: Yeah. I suspect that they’ll, you know, there will be language if this comes to fruition, which I’m hopeful that it will, that we’ll ensure that communities have a voice. But, maybe that’s the place you can’t just have a voice, it has to have some meaning, and it has to result in something real and that reality is the infrastructure set of projects. And at the end of the day, not everybody is going to be happy with whatever the projects may be, whether it’s high speed rail, whether it’s a sewage system, you know, whatever it might be. I mean, and to me, one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for community resilience are around parks and recreation opportunities. I think you can often identify disadvantaged communities by the absence of parks and recreation. And we need to change that. But even those types of projects will result in opposition. So I think there needs to be a recognition that opposition is a reality of every project of size and that we need to find the best result, but it can’t simply be no project is the result because of opposition.

Ethan: Yeah, we certainly don’t want to see paralysis just because we’re trying to accommodate multiple viewpoints. It’s a tricky balance to think about how you try to be respectful of individual complaints and concerns, particularly when it’s disadvantaged communities, but then also we have to get these projects deployed. So at the same time, how do you balance that? Well, predictions are always a bad thing to engage in, but what would be your prediction for the Biden infrastructure bill here ? 

Ken: Well, I think the ruling from the congressional rules –

Ethan: – the parliamentarian, right. 

Ken: That’s what I was looking for, thank you. That reconciliation can be used a second time in the fiscal year increases the chances that this will proceed. I think there’s a recognition throughout the country that we have disinvested in infrastructure. Traditional infrastructure, roads, and hopefully that includes now things like active transportation, parks et cetera. We need more investment in things like broadband. I think there’s a recognition even by those who don’t fully recognize climate change that we need to build resilience into our structures. And so I think that there is broad support among the public and as rightfully so, and that we should actually pay for it, that corporations and others should bear some of the costs as they’ve benefited from huge gains and the economy over the last few years. And that’s a way to pay for infrastructure that we need for the next 20 years. So I’m optimistic that actually we’re gonna see some meaningful investment in infrastructure long, long overdue. What do you think?

Ethan: Well, I don’t know. I think first of all, my sense is that if this passes it would be in September-ish. I think it’s probably from what folks I’ve talked to in DC, it’s kind of a done deal in the House for the most part. But then the Senate maybe is a little more dicey as we’ve seen repeatedly. It’s kind of ironic, they have a parliamentarian when it’s not even close to a parliament and this wouldn’t even be an issue if we were in a parliamentary system. But yeah, I, I, my guess is that something will pass, you know, but it’s hard to know. I mean, it’s ultimately gonna boil down to those few key Senators. So I share your optimism. I think this is generally a winning issue with the public. But I just don’t necessarily trust our elected officials, at least on the Senate side, but we’ll stay tuned and have to see.

Ken: Yeah. All right. Well, we’ll do a reconnoitering here in a few months and see if we’re anywhere close to being right.

Ethan: That sounds good. So we’ll take out Climate Break on the infrastructure bill and then come back and see what happens with it. But thank you, Ken, so much for joining us and great to chat about Biden infrastructure and we’ll have to stay tuned. 

President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill with Ken Alex and Ethan Elkind