From a distance, the steel frame bridge with large wooden planks spanning the middle looks to be in decent shape. It’s been providing a reliable path across the Heart River in western North Dakota since the early 1920s, enabling tractors to move from our fields that border both sides of the river and numerous hunters, hoping to shoot their next big trophy.
But state inspectors beg to differ. They found a hairline crack in one of the beams and have suggested lowering the weight limit and potentially, removing the decades-old bridge altogether. Removal would not be cheap, but replacement could cost almost $2 million — a huge investment for Grant County officials to consider. Making matters worse, it’s not the only bridge that needs to be fixed or upgraded. Several major farm to market bridges are in similar shape in the cash-strapped county and the list of needed investments in rural infrastructure keeps growing.
North Dakota is certainly not alone when you look at roads and bridges that need repair. A report last year by TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit, found that the U.S. has a $211 billion backlog in funding for road and bridge repairs. Looking at the top 25 states with the highest percentage of poor/structurally deficient rural bridges, the group found that many midwestern and southern states were near the top of the list. For example, Iowa ranked third, South Dakota ranked No. 4, Louisiana ranked No. 6 and North Dakota ranked No. 10.
It’s little wonder then that leaders in so many states are wondering if this will finally be the year that Congress can pass an infrastructure funding package and provide that massive infusion of federal funds to help states make much-needed investments. The two previous presidents have tried and failed in this regard and now President Joe Biden promises to get it done. But for now, a final deal appears to be elusive.
The Senate has completed its work on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure, passing the bill by a bipartisan 69-30 margin. The House was expected to vote on that bill last week, as part of a commitment Speaker Nancy Pelosi made to centrist members of her Democratic caucus.
However, in a victory for progressive members, House Democrats delayed passage of the bipartisan infrastructure deal as President Joe Biden also insisted on passage of a more ambitious package of social spending and climate priorities.
Biden met with House Democrats on the two bills recently at the Capitol and told reporters afterward, “It doesn't matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days, or six weeks, we're going to get it done.”
Moderates wanted the House to pass the $1.2 trillion, Senate-passed infrastructure measure before taking up Biden's $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill. He conceded privately that the latter plan would be cut significantly before the negotiations come to an end.
The House Budget Committee has advanced a $3.5 trillion version of the Build Back Better measure, which would be moved through the budget reconciliation process, requiring no GOP support in the 50-50 Senate. But Democratic leaders and the White House have yet to reach an agreement with the two Senate holdouts, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Sinema’s demands aren’t clear, while Manchin has insisted that he won’t accept a bill larger than $1.5 trillion.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters that Biden was clear during the meeting that the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills “were tied together,” and he gave no timetable for Democrats to reach agreement.
“He said, ‘I support the (infrastructure bill) entirely. If I thought I could do it right now, I would. But we need to get this reconciliation bill,’” Jayapal said.
A House moderate, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Biden also indicated that the size of the Build Back Better package would be slashed closer to $2 trillion.
Both bills have significant implications for agriculture. The Senate-passed infrastructure bill would authorize $550 billion in new spending over 10 years, including new funding for rural broadband expansion, inland waterway improvements and roads and bridge construction.
The Build Back Better package would include new spending on renewable fuels, agricultural research, conservation programs, forestry and child nutrition assistance.
Cuellar and other moderates had reached an agreement with Pelosi, D-Calif., to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill, regardless of the status of the reconciliation measure. But Biden effectively undercut the moderates’ deal by tying the infrastructure bill’s fate to the reconciliation package.
“He is the president of the United States, and he says that he wants to get this done, and he basically linked them together,” Cuellar told reporters.
Asked if the lack of a deal was a setback for the Democratic agenda, Cuellar said, “I think if we get it done, there'll be a victory. The question is whether we get that victory.”
Editor’s note: Philip Brasher contributed to this story. Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.