Creating a Strategy for Infrastructure Advocacy

May 3, 2021

The $2 trillion Biden administration infrastructure plan, the American Jobs Plan, touches the largest parts of the US economy in significant ways. It seeks to modernize transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, public transit), stimulate the advancement of electric vehicles, shore up the nation’s electric grid, expand broadband internet access, and improve drinking water infrastructure. It also calls for a $580 billion investment in job training, manufacturing development, and research and development. An increase in the corporate tax rate to 28 percent is one of the main funding sources for the plan.

Teresa Stepic and Katie Wright, Senior Vice Presidents of Client Relations at DDC Public Affairs, work daily with advocates in several affected sectors and offer these insights into the ongoing debate about the plan.

What are the biggest issues you see for the sectors you are most actively working with?

KW: This bill is really the first piece of legislation that gives insight into the administration’s future goals for clean energy. It includes funding for everything from electric vehicles to expanding the power grid and home energy retrofits to cleaning up old oil wells. Because so much of the nation’s energy future will be impacted by this all-encompassing bill, the energy industry wants to make sure it has a seat at the table – as the details of the bill are being decided.

The biggest challenge the industry has is educating consumers and elected officials that they have a big role in the energy transition and the long-term value they bring to the communities in which they operate. Unfortunately, they must do this while also protecting their ability to operate successfully.

While there is a lot to be optimistic about in this bill, oil and gas pays for much of it – and many feel this will undermine the industry’s recovery and in turn America’s economic recovery.

TS: Public transit and passenger rail are much more prominent in this plan than ever before. The $85 billion to “modernize transit agencies,” an additional $80 billion for Amtrak, $50 billion on transportation asset resiliency, and an additional $25 billion for projects benefiting the regional or national economy are proof of the commitment to address a backlog of transit projects and move the country forward. This is an unprecedented pledge, and based on the nearly 4:1 return on public transit investment seen in recent years, the impact will be felt across our economy.

Economic and environmental equity are also addressed by the $20 billion identified to improve mobility access in disadvantaged areas. And while the commitment from the administration is strong, public transit has received a series of stimulus funds during the pandemic. Elected officials will need to know the difference between previous emergency relief funds and the critical additional funds needed for long-term infrastructure investment.

Building on Katie’s thoughts about the transition in the energy sector, the bill also commits $174 billion for investment in electric vehicle and battery manufacturing. This will impact not only public transit, but manufacturing communities as transit agencies look to update their vehicle fleets to match evolving mobility needs.

There are some things in the plan that are not traditionally associated with “infrastructure.” What are some of them and how might they affect the discussion in the industries you follow?

TS: Bridging the digital divide by furthering broadband access and the role of workers in the modern economy are two areas of focus for me.

The pandemic-forced shift to telework and remote learning put a bright light on the need to improve internet access across our country, particularly in rural and low-income communities. This initiative goes back more than a decade to the administration of President George W. Bush. Helping everyone move to a robust and stable internet will impact how we learn, work and grow our economy.

There is also language in the plan that potentially eliminates right-to-work laws in 27 states. These laws protect workers from mandated union membership and due payment. Passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize, the PRO Act, could make it harder to pass the larger infrastructure bill.

KW: There has been a lot of chatter about the definition of “infrastructure” in this plan since only about 25 percent of it falls under what most would consider “traditional infrastructure.” There is a lot to like overall, especially its focus on building out electric transmission, broadband expansion and other energy grid infrastructure.

There are some very notable missed opportunities for the energy industry. There was no mention of repairing natural gas distribution systems, no real investment in carbon capture and storage, and no mention of modernizing our nation’s pipeline infrastructure that is used to move American energy.

What is the role of coalition building in advocacy?

TS: This plan is so large and covers so many new areas that the traditional paths for building support for individual projects or industries will not work. New alliances will have to be developed, and there are likely to be new opponents. For example, in transit, there is a much greater emphasis on equity and environmentalism, so equipment manufacturers and the large engineering and construction firms will need to consider broader relationships.

Pay attention to the language used by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the administration’s leading champion for the plan. He talks all the time about changing priorities – like the need to engage with traditionally underserved communities– in addition to fixing infrastructure and building new systems. This is a reminder to look broadly when building a coalition to advance your issues through what is sure to be a noisy debate.

KW: I’ll say again the energy industry wants to help support the administration’s push for a clean energy transition, but they will have to work together to achieve that goal in a way that does not impact the industry’s recovery or hurt our economy.

The energy sector faces a real education gap, making value-based communications even more important. It will need to find individual groups and constituencies that can help illustrate the energy sector’s long-term value and its role in a cleaner energy future. The industry will not be successful if the conversation is seen as a fight of fossil fuels vs. the administration. If it can unite groups around common interests and values, then it can build a winning coalition.

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