Dams, Bridges And Paid Sick Leave: What The Mass. Delegation Hopes To Insert In Biden's Infrastructure Plan

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The Bourne Bridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Sen. Ed Markey hopes President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan will include money to replace the Bourne Bridge. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan lays out his vision of better transit, broadband and more, but it doesn't yet specify which projects could get funded.

That's where members of Congress come in.

Though the president's proposal has broad support among Democrats, Congress and the White House still have many details to work out as they craft the final bill.

Massachusetts' all-Democratic delegation is already lobbying to put their favorite projects on the list.

On a recent visit to a Medford elementary school, Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark said her infrastructure goals include money for child-care centers to outfit facilities with classroom dividers, cleaning equipment, and other items to help deal with the pandemic.

"All the sort of bricks-and-mortar child-care needs that, often, a child-care center simply can't afford, unless there is a hefty tuition increase for parents," she said.

There is no guarantee Clark will secure the federal aid, but she is one of the most powerful people in Congress. And Medford's mayor credited her with delivering millions in local COVID-19 relief money in previous packages.

The infrastructure package could be another chance for influential lawmakers to flex some muscle.

Rep. Richie Neal, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said he is better positioned to serve his constituents than a junior congressman.

"It's not even close," he said. "The Ways and Means Committee is going to write most of this legislation."

As Neal's committee gets to work, he is looking out for his own priorities: "Bridges across Western and Central Massachusetts. Dams in Springfield, all the way to Northampton. A big issue for me, certainly, is going to be expanding Amtrak and East-West rail service. I think that is an opportunity that would be transformative in nature, and that opportunity might not come again, if we were not to take advantage of this."

assengers board Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited after it arrives in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Alden Bourne/NEPR)
Passengers boarded Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited in Springfield last year. (Alden Bourne/NEPR)

A rail line that runs from Boston to Pittsfield has another champion in Sen. Ed Markey. The Green New Deal coauthor is a well-known fan of mass transit, but he said he will fight for motorists, too.

"Many Massachusetts residents know the pain of sitting in endless traffic to get over the Bourne and Sagamore bridges," he said, "and I think it's very possible that we could include the funding for the Cape Cod bridge replacements."

That would surely please vacationers from the state's wealthiest congressional district, represented by freshman Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Newton.

Auchincloss may not have the seniority of Markey, Neal or Clark, but he does sit on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. And his phone has been buzzing lately.

"I'm working hard with state and local officials in the 34 cities and towns of the Massachusetts 4th to identify promising projects, whether it's fixing intersections or water and sewer," he said. "There's increasing concern about some contaminants in our water system."

It's a concern shared by Rep. Seth Moulton, who said replacing aging pipes is essential, if not as energizing as something like universal broadband, which he also supports.

"People get especially excited about things like delivering broadband to every citizen, every student in Massachusetts. But there's also an important amount of infrastructure that really is out of sight, out of mind," he said. "It's something we have to worry about, especially in New England, because so much of our infrastructure was built long before the rest of the country's."

Utility contractors dig up the road above natural gas lines along Dracut Street in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. Nearly 9,000 homes and businesses may be without gas for weeks as investigators continue to probe what set off the explosions last Thursday in the Merrimack Valley area serviced by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Utility contractors dug up the road above natural gas lines along Dracut Street in Lawrence after gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley in September 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Few lawmakers understand what is at stake in underground systems better than Moulton and Rep. Lori Trahan, who represent the two districts damaged by deadly gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley in 2018.

Trahan was elected less than two months after that event, and she said it galvanized her commitment to infrastructure investments. Now, she sees the president's plan as a chance to stop chronic sewage runoffs into the Merrimack River.

"I've been talking about combined sewage overflow in the Merrimack River since I came to Washington," she said. "Every community along the Merrimack Valley knows just how serious the combined sewage overflow issue is."

The overflows tend to happen after heavy rain, so Trahan wants federal money to upgrade storm water drainage in her district.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley said a comprehensive federal package should also fund things that aren't conventionally viewed as infrastructure, though many Republicans and some Democrats prefer a narrower approach. Pressley is pushing to include paid sick leave, arguing the pandemic has shown keeping people home when they are ill contributes to a healthier, more productive workforce.

"Paid leave is a matter of public health," she said. "It's necessary for our economic recovery. And I also see it as a racial, gender and economic justice issue. I'm going to keep fighting for this package to be as inclusive, robust as possible."

This segment aired on April 16, 2021.


Headshot of Callum Borchers

Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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