White House gives Utah best grade in its infrastructure report, but it’s far below an ‘A’

Beehive State has scores of bridges and thousands of miles of highways that need repairs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) UDOT gives a tour of the state’s new longest pedestrian bridge on Thursday, August 20, 2020, connecting Utah Valley University in Orem to student housing and the community on the West side of I-15. Crews are finishing up an extensive hydronic heating system that will pump warm water to keep the bridge clear of snow in the winters, as it gets ready to pour concrete for the walking surface. UDOT will close I-15 in both directions this weekend for work on the nearly 1,000 foot bridge that is 15 feet wide to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and scooters. Elevators and stairs with small ramps to push up bicycles will be on each side of the bridge.

Pitching its $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, the White House released state-by-state breakdowns, complete with letter grades and a hodgepodge of stats intended to show the broad need for upgrading everything from roads to water systems to housing.

Utah got the best grade in the nation, but at a C-plus, it wasn’t intended as a badge of honor.

The White House document, released Monday, says Utah has 62 bridges and 2,064 miles of highway in poor condition. It has 17% of its trains and buses running past their useful life. And Utah’s water system will need $4.4 billion in improvements in the next 20 years.

What the report doesn’t say is exactly how much of the money would be headed to Utah if Congress passes the bill. That means it is unclear how many of those bridges would be repaired or how many water upgrades would get funded.

Right now, President Joe Biden’s plan is running into stiff Republican resistance, including from all six of Utah’s members of Congress. They criticize the plan for spending that goes far beyond roads and bridges to items such as child care. And they dislike that Biden wants to fund it by a series of tax increases, including raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%.

Sen. Mitt Romney opposes those tax hikes, according to his spokeswoman Arielle Mueller, who argued that they would hurt job growth just as the country is recovering from the pandemic. But, like many Republicans, Romney is open to an infrastructure plan.

“He hopes that infrastructure reform will be negotiated in a bipartisan way,” Mueller said, “to improve what’s broken in our country — roads, highways, bridges in disrepair — not as a means to institute a laundry list of government projects that have nothing to do with infrastructure.”

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, also said he’s open to an infrastructure bill but argued that Biden’s plan “goes far beyond the infrastructure mark, only allocating 5%” toward roads and bridges. He said the measure would “increase taxes on American businesses and workers, stifle growth amid economic recovery, and vastly expand the federal government’s overreach in my district.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig met with reporters Monday and said that his pitch to Republicans has been about the jobs these infrastructure projects would create.

“What I’m finding is that I don’t have to convince anyone, really, that there is a need to make more investments,” he said. “We just need to keep making the case for the vision and the plan that the president has put forward. Again, when you’re talking about $620 billion just for the transportation piece, that means that every state and every part of this country will see a major benefit.”

Biden also met with a bipartisan group of legislators Monday as he continues working on the plan that will likely consume Washington for months. He signaled that he’s willing to compromise, and some Democrats have expressed concerns as well. If no Republicans get on board, the Democrats willy likely try to use Senate procedures to create a narrow path where it could pass with only Democratic votes.

The behemoth bill would provide money for a vast array of needs from responding to extreme weather events to providing more affordable housing to expanding broadband access.

Buttigeig pushed back on the GOP criticism that the bill involves more than roads, bridges and airports.

“I also want to point to the fact that the greatest infrastructure investments in American history — the Erie Canal to the transcontinental railroad to the interstate highway system — partly were great because they challenged the country to expand its definition of infrastructure from what prevailed in the past, and that’s one of the reasons why you’re going to see things like broadband in this package.”

The White House sheet on Utah says 129,000 renters are spending more than 30% of their income on rent, and 9.2% of households don’t have broadband.

The state has made its own investments in affordable housing and broadband access. Salt Lake City has a new international airport and the Legislature just funded a project to expand service of the FrontRunner commuter rail.

“We really view these federal investments as going hand in hand with states and communities that are stepping up,” Buttigeig said. “We’ve seen a lot of states, even local communities, taking sometimes tough votes to raise the revenue to make needed improvements. And the reality is, frankly, the need is big enough.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.