Here’s what the $1.2T infrastructure bill will look like in the West

Drought resilience, wildfires, roadways and railways the focus of bipartisan package in Western states

The House passed the highly anticipated $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill late Friday, a sweeping package that will likely impact all 50 states in some way. The legislation, which the Senate approved in August, now awaits President Joe Biden’s signature.

The package, which includes $550 billion in new spending, is aimed at improving the country’s roads, bridges, railways, water systems and broadband internet. In the West, the bill is being touted as a multipronged approach to tackling issues specific to the region, like drought, wildfires and public lands management.

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Although it’s too early to tell the exact scope of those projects, here is where some of that money is being diverted, and how it could take shape in Western states:

Western water infrastructure

The bill lays out over $8 billion for water infrastructure projects across the West, which is undergoing a historic drought.

  • It includes $1.15 billion for water and groundwater storage, and conveyance projects like canals or pipelines, and $3.2 billion for replacement or rehabilitation of similar projects. An additional $1 billion is earmarked for rural water projects.
  • Water recycling projects aimed at reusing stormwater runoff and wastewater will get $1 billion. Meanwhile $250 million will go toward desalination studies and projects, an expensive yet growing area of research.
  • In addition, $500 million will go toward ensuring dams in the region are safe and undergoing proper maintenance.
  • Also, $300 million will go toward bolstering the Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which looks to monitor reservoirs, implement conservation and storage projects, and prevent additional water cuts to both the upper and lower Colorado River basins.

In Utah, officials are hoping that $8 billion will take shape in several ways.

  • The Central Utah Project Completion Act, which diverts water from the Colorado River Basin to the Wasatch Front, will get $50 million for municipal water use, mitigation, hydroelectric power, fish and wildlife, and conservation, according to Sen. Mitt Romney’s office.
  • The Western Area Power Administration, one of four power marketing administrations within the U.S. Department of Energy, will receive $500 million for drought-related shortfalls, Romney’s office said.
  • The Emergency Watershed Protection Program will see $300 million for repairing damages to the waterways and watersheds resulting from natural disasters, according to the bill.
  • In addition, $2.5 billion will go toward the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund, an umbrella fund designed to help with water projects on tribal nations, including the Navajo Nation. Romney’s office said $214 million will go toward the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement, which will bring running water to the roughly 40% of Utah Navajo Nation residents who lack it.
  • Congress diverted billions to both the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds, federal-state partnerships that seek to finance water quality infrastructure projects. Over the next five years, Utah will see roughly $219 million from both funds.
An air tanker drops retardant on the Parleys Canyon Fire west of Park City.
An air tanker drops retardant on the Parley’s Canyon fire west of Park City on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Wildfire mitigation and land management

In the wake of several devastating wildfires this past summer — the Dixie Fire burned an area the size of Rhode Island, dumping smoke across the Mountain West and now ranks as California’s second-largest recorded fire — lawmakers earmarked billions for fire research and mitigation.

  • The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service will each get $250 million for planning and conducting prescribed burns. This approach to fire mitigation helps clear out dry, built-up fuels and can help revitalize ecosystems.
  • An additional $500 million will be allocated for mechanical thinning projects that, similar to prescribed burns, intends to promote fire-resilient stands. It’s a controversial approach to fire mitigation that environmental groups say is an excuse to increase logging. The bill states the thinning will be done “in an ecologically appropriate manner that maximizes the retention of large trees, as appropriate for the forest type.”
  • Also, $500 million will also go toward “developing or improving potential control locations” like a fuelbreak, a man-made area with reduced vegetation that acts as a barrier to either stop or slow fire spread.
  • And $500 million will be available in the form of wildfire defense grants to at-risk communities, including those on tribal nations, while an additional $200 million will be available for post-fire restoration.
  • Salaries for federal wildland firefighters are also getting a $600 million boost.
  • The bill establishes the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act, which forms a commission to study fire prevention, mitigation, management and rehabilitation projects, while issuing recommendations to government agencies.
  • Lawmakers also allocated over $350 million toward a flurry of other mitigation efforts, such as monitoring equipment, bolstering emergency response, inter-agency collaboration, trainings and workshops and an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use satellites to quickly detect and report fires.
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Despite it taking up scores of pages in the lengthy bill, the scope of public land management extends beyond wildfire mitigation. Here are several ways public lands in the West could be impacted:

  • Lawmakers approved $50 million for endangered species recovery programs for both the San Juan and Upper Colorado river basins. An additional $250 million will be available for trail and stream restoration.
  • Over $11 billion will be available for abandoned mine reclamation. This will translate to not less than $20 million in grant funding for each eligible state or tribal nation.
  • A total of $5 billion will go toward orphaned, or abandoned, oil wells. It includes the establishment of the Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells Act, which requires the Department of the Interior to plug or remediate orphan wells on federal land. An Environmental Defense Fund analysis found that roughly 9 million Americans live within one mile of an orphan well, which release large amounts of methane.
  • The National Parks Service is also getting a slice of the $1.2 trillion pie. It includes $350 million to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, $1.4 billion for transportation investments, $355 million a year for repair projects and more.
Traffic moves along I-15 as it passes under Triumph Boulevard in Lehi on Dec. 16, 2020. The interchange was added as part of the Utah Department of Transportation’s Technology Corridor project, a three-year project that brought major revisions to I-15, interchanges and surrounding roads from Lehi Main Street to state Route 92. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Roadways and railways

Between a possible tunnel in Wyoming’s Teton Pass, a boost to Utah’s highways and what the White House says is the largest federal investment in a passenger rail system since Amtrak was created, here are some ways the package could help the West’s travel infrastructure:

  • Over the next five years, Utah will have access to roughly $3 billion in highway funding. That means the Beehive State will likely see more roadwork as the state gears up to repair, maintain and possibly build roads and highways. “Utah has 2,064 miles of roads in poor condition. Commute times are up 7.2% in the state since 2011 and bad roads cost drivers an average of $709 per year in repair,” according to Romney’s office.
  • The American Road and Transportation Builders Association deems 62 bridges in Utah structurally deficient. However nationwide bridge maintenance, construction and repair will now see $40 billion in funding — of that, $30 billion “will be apportioned by formula,” Romney’s office said, to states to ensure they have the needed resources.
  • In Wyoming’s famed Teton Pass, avalanches frequently close the road for those looking to work and recreate. The New York Times reports that some of the highway funding could be used to construct a tunnel to ensure continual access, regardless of what mother nature cooks up.
  • Lawmakers are targeting $35 billion for airport improvement projects, helping with expansions, planning, rebuilding runways, lighting and air navigation. In July, Utah’s airports received roughly $1.8 million in federal grants from the Airport Improvement Program.
  • Amtrak is getting a boost, and the White House says the $66 billion investment in passenger railways is the largest since the state-owned enterprise was created in 1971. This will be divvied out across the country, and officials hope the funding will “modernize the northeast corridor, and bring world-class rail service to areas outside of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.” That means California’s long anticipated Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train could be one step closer to reality.
  • Roughly $7.5 billion will go toward a national network of electric vehicle chargers, $5 billion for electric school buses and $6 billion for battery material processing grants and battery manufacturing and recycling grants.
Jose Reyes, of LightLink Communications, uncoils cable to be installed for broadband internet in Salt Lake City on Dec. 3, 2020. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Broadband network

According to the White House, there are more than 30 million Americans living in areas with no broadband infrastructure. The bill’s $65 billion investment seeks to change that.

  • According to Romney’s office, the investment will expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities in Utah.
  • The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program will see $2 billion in funding to expand broadband access to the country’s tribal nations, where access to the internet has been historically lacking.

Over $42 billion in grants will be available to states for broadband projects, and an additional $14 billion is being allocated to provide a $30 monthly voucher to help low-income Americans pay for internet service.

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