Biden infrastructure push includes meeting with Whaley

President Joe Biden pushed forward Wednesday with Democrats on a multi-trillion-dollar domestic plan and met with a bipartisan group of governors and mayors, including Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, to drum up support for a separate bill that could put $1.2 trillion over eight years into repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure.

“There are no Democratic roads or Republican bridges,” Biden told Whaley and others seated in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

“There are families that need shorter commute times, safer commutes. Kids need to be able to drink clean drinking water that doesn’t have lead in it and communities need to have reliable transit systems,” Biden said. “We have a chance to solve these problems — a bipartisan chance to solve these problems.”

Whaley, who is running as a Democrat candidate for Ohio governor, told the Dayton Daily News that the group of mayors and governors met with President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other members of his administration for more than 70 minutes.

“He is very focused on getting the bipartisan bill passed,” Whaley said. “This plan is bipartisan everywhere else in the country, it’s just Washington is so unable to come together. ... We’re really close to showing bipartisan democracy can work again.”

Whaley said she told the president that the bipartisan proposal under consideration would greatly benefit Ohio by connecting its largest cities with Amtrak passenger rail service and provide more money for road repairs and public transit agencies desperately need funding to restore service cuts that led to increased travel times for riders.

Before meeting with the group of governors and mayors, Biden met with Democrats in a closed-door meeting. The midday session was Biden’s first working meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol since becoming president. It’s the start of his efforts to firm up support for forthcoming legislation embodying his priorities among Democrats, whose skinny congressional majorities leave him with virtually no votes to lose.

Late Tuesday, top Democrats announced an agreement among themselves on plans to spend a mammoth $3.5 trillion over the coming decade on a wide range of domestic programs, an expansion Biden has proposed financing with tax boosts on the rich and big corporations.

Included in the proposal would be a top priority for progressives — an expansion of Medicare, the health insurance program for older Americans, to include vision, dental and hearing coverage.

A bipartisan group of senators working on the separate infrastructure package includes Republican lead negotiator Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. The group is working to flesh out a measure that would cost around $1 trillion — including around $579 billion in new spending — on roads, water systems and other more traditional infrastructure projects, another Biden priority.

“The infrastructure framework is not only about highways, but a broad investment in ports, freight rail, bridges and other critical infrastructure that is in need of repair and replacement. Building out broadband networks can expand productivity and connect the country virtually, much as the Interstate Highway System did decades ago,” Portman wrote in a letter published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal.

As currently proposed, the top four expenditures in the bipartisan Senate infrastructure plan include about $110 billion for roads and bridges, $73 billion for the power grid, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail systems and $65 billion for broadband infrastructure.

Portman wrote roughly 10% to 15% of the funding that would go toward highways and roads will be used to repair existing highways to reduce congestion, leading to more economic efficiency.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in key infrastructure priorities that will make our economy more efficient and competitive,” he wrote.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure an average C- grade on 17 categories: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, parks, ports, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, storm water, transit and wastewater infrastructure.

The worst grade nationally went to transit, which received a D-.

Ohio’s overall grade matched the national average but was lower than the national grade in two categories — drinking water infrastructure, which received a D+, and ports, which got a C.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he is encouraged and called the bipartisan infrastructure deal “a good start.”

“It invests in Ohio roads and bridges and broadband, and doesn’t force Ohio workers to foot the bill,” Brown said. “We need to get this done with broader infrastructure investments like our housing infrastructure, and the child care and family infrastructure we need to grow Ohio’s economy and support Ohio communities.”

This week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent Congress a letter that was signed by a bipartisan group of 369 mayors from across the nation urging lawmakers to approve the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.

The proposed framework is a major investment that reimagines the nation’s transportation, water, communication and energy systems ― a longtime priority for U.S. mayors, Whaley said during a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Columbus on Tuesday.

“We have a real opportunity before us to transform the backbone of this country,” said Whaley, who is the 79th president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Whaley also recently said investments are needed to modernize the nation’s infrastructure, reduce carbon emissions, build a workforce for the future and help families and businesses prosper.

Federal resources should be provided directly to cities because they know their needs best, she said.

Whaley told this newspaper that President Biden was upbeat during her meeting.

She said they talked mostly in the Roosevelt room but the mayors and governors also spent some time with the President and Vice President in the Oval office.

Whaley said citizens want roads resurfaced and potholes filled, but it can take years for infrastructure improvement projects to move forward because there is so little funding available.

Whaley said she wouldn’t spend so much time advocating for the bipartisan framework if she didn’t think it didn’t have a decent chance of passing.

“You can definitely sense that (the President) thinks we have an opportunity to pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan,” she said. “As America’s mayors, we want to do that too.”

Together, the infrastructure and social program packages fall a bit short of the roughly $4.5 trillion Biden had proposed to help communities and families in every corner of the country. That means some increases Biden has proposed will have to be curtailed or cut.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.