By Quentin Torbert
Special to Florida Construction News
President Biden’s $2.1 trillion infrastructure plan, named The American Jobs Plan, aims to rebuild America’s traditional infrastructure along with improving items typically not grouped in infrastructure conversations. The outcome and benefits of the proposal has mixed sentiments in the Florida construction community.
Here’s a breakdown of the proposed infrastructure law:
- Highways, bridges, and ports: 20,000 miles of highways and roads will be repaired along with the 10 most significant bridges in the country.
- Clean drinking water: All lead pipes will be eliminated.
- Electric grid: Build a stronger electric transmission system so cleaner and cheaper electricity can be moved throughout the country.
- Oil and Gas Wells: Many gas and oil wells are a hazard to Americans and the environments, so these systems will be plugged and capped.
- Broadband coverage: Deliver high-speed broadband to all Americans, including the “35 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband”
- Affordable housing: $213 billion will be invested to preserve and retrofit 2 million affordable places to live.
- Schools: $100 billion is proposed to renovate and build new public schools, while $25 billion is proposed to upgrade child care facilities.
- Care services: Access to quality care for the elderly and disabled persons is proposed for $400 billion.
- Veterans facility: The Federal Capital Revolving Fund will be used to modernize and upgrade Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics around the country.
Opposition to the infrastructure plan
Some construction players think the infrastructure plan, as currently written, will not be helpful to Floridians.
“Probably only 10 percent of what they’re proposing is actually spent on infrastructure spending” says Peter Dyga, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Florida East Coast Chapter, which primarily represents non-union (merit shop) contractors. Dyga believes the nation is in strong need of infrastructure spending, but the current proposal doesn’t addresses it.
“More than likely, they’re going to make you sign on to a collective bargaining agreement. So there will be some people who are merit shop or non-union contractors that will do that. There’s no doubt about it, but the vast majority won’t. So you’re discriminating against the free market or the merit shop contractors, which is 97 percent of contractors in Florida,” says Dyga.
Much of the drawback from opponents of the bill is centered in non-infrastructure items being put into the plan. Many see Biden as trying to push social agenda issues rather than focusing solely on infrastructure. For example, President Biden is proposing $400 billion to be used to expand access to affordable care for aging adults which will raise wages to care givers. Expanding affordable housing and adding child care facilities in poorer areas are the other items in the plan that many opponents want removed from the bill.
“In my opinion, the administration knows that spending extra money on the 90 percent of non-infrastructure items in the proposal is not popular so they have to play the language game and redefine the terms,” Dyga says.
Republicans in Congress created a $568 billion counterproposal to Biden’s infrastructure plan, focusingon traditional infrastructure and broadband. Senator Shelley Moore Capito is one of the creators and “called the framework an effort to start a conversation toward a compromise with Democrats.” This counterproposal strips most of the social issues such as raising wages for “care economy” workers.
However, Biden’s proposal supporters contend everything in the bill ultimately affects traditional infrastructure. Part of infrastructure bill includes improving the “care economy” which includes raising wages for care workers.
“One out of 6 essential care workers live in poverty. Most of our essential care workers are people of color. That’s something that needs to be addressed,” says Shawn McDonnell, President of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 915 of Tampa Bay. Supporters of the bill say low wages make it harder for people to afford housing which affects the economy.
Support for the infrastructure plan
McDonnell thinks President Biden’s infrastructure plan will help keep the Florida economy on track. “This bill wants to double the number of apprentices from 500,000 to 1 million which will be beneficial for construction nationwide but especially here in Florida” says McDonnell. IBEW believes more trained construction workers will create a better industry.
In its recent newsletter to members, the IBEW is calling on labor protections like prevailing wages and requiring the use of project labor agreements to be included with the American Jobs Plan.
McDonnell says prevailing wage jobs level the playing field, and allows everyone to be able to compete. Owners can get a better job completed on time by going through a union contractor.
President Biden plans to add 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles by 2030 which will help the U.S. better compete in the electric car market with China. IBEW is ready for the shift to more electric vehicles.
“IBEW is in the business of training, and we already are invested in the electric vehicle charging station training program. Across the country, we are already training apprentices and existing electricians on how to how to install these electric vehicle stations,” McDonnell says. IBEW chapters have been doing this type of training before the pandemic, so the recent spike in interest in electric vehicles has been measured by IBEW for some time.
The plan also allocates $100 billion to rebuilding the electrical grid nationwide. “It’ll mean upgrades to our transmission lines. It’ll mean new alternative power-generating projects which will create more jobs,” says McDonnell.
Even though McDonnell considers broadband to be in the low voltage family, President Biden’s goal to expand broadband to the 35 percent of rural Americans who lack quality access will be beneficial to Florida’s electricians, he says.
Material price hikes
Many players in the Florida construction community are upbeat with more projects ramping up. With this surge, material prices have increased due to pent up demand. “Costs and delayed deliveries of materials, parts, and supplies are vexing many contractors. Nearly 85 percent report those costs have increased over the past year” reports Associated General Contractors.
“There’s a lot of negative pressure from materials and labor. If the infrastructure plan is approved and federal construction dollars start flowing, this is going to present some challenges. If construction companies are already having a hard time finding material, supplies, and labor, it may be even harder,’ says Dyga. This is a problem Dyga says he rather have as opposed to a slow economy with people wondering where the next job is coming from.
Like many construction players, IBEW Local of Tampa also has a shortage of labor. There are about 280 apprentices and 1,150 members at the local chapter, but members can travel all over the country to fill voids. The flexibility will be helpful if the infrastructure bill is passed which will create even more of a labor shortage with new projects added.
Dyga predicts construction wages will go up, but if the cost of living goes up as well, there is no net benefit. People should be cautious.
The complex question
The big question: Will Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan help or hurt Florida construction? This complex question is not easily answered. With the evolving discussions around President Biden’s plan versus Congress’ counterproposal, it will be some time before all parties come to an agreement.
The short answer: Wait and see. Until then, we keep building upward.
Quentin Torbert is a freelance contributor for Florida Construction News.