When Biden signs Infrastructure Act, what does it mean for Philly?

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Mayor Jim Kenney is joining President Joe Biden Monday for the signing into law of the U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, from which Philadelphia stands to gain.

For Philly, the spend could mean an increase regional transit accessibility and capacity, help to heal neighborhoods divided by past highway projects, a reduction in the persistent digital divide in broadband connectivity, and potentially more tourism via boosted Amtrak service.

Nationwide, the $1.2 trillion package will infuse nearly every transportation sector with billions of dollars, while also introducing environmentally sustainable infrastructure, including a network of charging stations for electric vehicles and other climate resiliency projects.

The funding, which amounts to $550 billion of new spending, will also go to updating power grids, cleaning up industrial waste sites, and — perhaps most significantly in the wake of COVID-19 and the increased need for remote work and schooling — bolstering internet access.

Pennsylvania stands to receive nearly $18 billion via the act over the next five years, per a Wolf administration estimate. But none of this funding is coming directly to the city; it’ll all be allocated through the state. So what could it mean for Philly and the region? Here are some ideas.

The largest share of the bill — $110 billion — is allotted for roads and bridges across the U.S. Pennsylvania could see $11.3 billion of that to fix federal highways and federally-funded roads, per White House estimates, and $1.6 billion for bridge repairs.

The bridge thing is huge: An estimated 13% of the commonwealth’s bridges are in need of repair, according to PennDOT data. Of the state’s thousands of structurally deficient bridges, around 94 are in the Philly region. Roads in need of fixing include more than 7,500 miles of highway statewide. Many of those dilapidated routes run right through Philadelphia, as city drivers are all too well aware.

An estimated $2.8 billion over five years will be sent to Harrisburg for public transportation improvements throughout Pennsylvania.

SEPTA, which is still reeling from the COVID passenger dip and is also set to lose its regular infusion of $500 million from Pa. Turnpike tolls, should receive an additional $120 million in federal funds this year, and is expected to receive a total of $540 million through 2026.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch told WHYY in March that funding from the proposed infrastructure bill would go to trolley mobilization, increased accessibility and capacity on the Market-Frankford Line and Broad Street Line, and incorporating more electric buses into the city’s fleet.

The federal funding could also be directed to new projects like the proposed $2 billion rail extension connecting Philadelphia with King of Prussia.

The extensive investment in broadband internet and expanding access to quality internet access is a historic part of the bill. Philly has a deep digital divide, which existed long before the pandemic. COVID-19 lockdowns and remote learning plans shed an additional light on the challenges that lack of access to the internet pose to families, children, and residents throughout the city, and the devastating consequences of what is a systemic inequity issue.

In Philadelphia, according to the city’s “Connecting Philadelphia: 2021 Household Internet Assessment Survey,” more than 15% of the city’s households do not have high-speed internet connections, and overall, there is a low awareness of discount and affordability programs for broadband subscriptions.

Pennsylvania will receive at least $100 million to expand broadband infrastructure and connect the approximately 14% of households statewide that do not have internet access to broadband.

In addition to any funding provided to the city’s programs, like PHLConnectED, aimed at addressing the digital divide in the School District of Philadelphia, the dollars will go towards expanding broadband access by extending networks in hard-to-reach communities, as well as ensuring that low-income households can access financial support for high-speed internet access.

Like all transportation sectors, train travel was hit hard in 2020 by the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. This summer, Amtrak saw a significant jump in its number of passengers, but as of August, that number was still 35% lower than it was prior to the pandemic.

Nationwide, $66 billion has been allotted for passenger and freight rail travel — the largest amount of money the federal government has invested in passenger rail since Amtrak’s founding in 1971.

Apart from addressing general repairs and updating trains and stations, the funding is earmarked to help Amtrak revamp the Northeast Corridor route, from DC to Boston, along which Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is one of the key stops. The repairs to the route would replace some bridges and tunnels that are more than 100 years old, enhancing safety measures while also shortening travel time.

More passengers along the route could mean more visitors to Philadelphia for business or tourism purposes, and greater ease of travel for Philadelphians.

Amtrak originally touted building new lines and restoring routes like service from Philly to Reading, but it’s unclear if that will happen, as the total amount allocated to the train organization is $14 billion less than originally proposed.

With the Reconnecting Communities Initiative which Philadelphia’s own U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans co-sponsored, the nation reckons with the legacy of city planners who for decades, many following the example of New York City’s most infamous urban planner, Robert Moses, built highways through the middle of low-income neighborhoods, to the detriment of many vibrant communities of color.

The initiative will provide $1 billion nationwide to neighborhoods that have been divided by highways to bridge that divide in a number of ways.

In Philadelphia, $1 million of that funding is slated to go to the Nicetown Community Development Corporation for a $9 million development of sports courts, a skate park, and more underneath the Roosevelt Boulevard highway.

Chinatown, which was divided in two by the construction of the Vine Street Expressway in the 1980s, is also expected to benefit from the initiative.

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