The nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden rolled out Wednesday had elected officials and transportation specialists all across the country dreaming of all the projects that could be coming their way. The potential roads, bridges, tunnels — both new and to be repaired — was all the talk.
Greg Lalevee saw jobs. And economic prosperity.
Lalevee, the head of Local 825 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, knows that no politician gets everything on their wish list. But, if even half of the projects that were being suggested get the go-ahead, he feels they have the potential to spark the economy in a way that has not been seen since the Great Depression.
“Most studies show that a dollar spent on infrastructure is worth at least $1.50 of economic output — it could be more,” he said. “Think about when you build a road in New Jersey. You need stone, you need concrete, you need other aggregates. Where does that stuff come from?
“It’s the rock quarries in northern and western New Jersey. It’s the sand mines in South Jersey. And when all that stuff gets mixed up into concrete and asphalt, it’s done in plants in New Jersey — you’re not importing it from China.
“This is the cascading effect of infrastructure spending.”
The benefits reach further. Sure, there are the diners and the sandwich trucks that will get tons of economic activity around work sites for years. But Lalevee likes to talk about the next generation of workers that will benefit, too.
“If the president’s plan were to ever be realized, we would be expanding the number of apprentices we take in, doubling it and then some,” he said.
Pre-COVID-19, Lalevee said IUOE 825 had about 60 apprenticeships a year. With this?
“I can see how we would need to have 200,” he said. “You would almost be creating a whole next generation of construction workers. The average age of most union workers is around 50 or higher. This would change that.
“These projects would have the ability to sustain new workers for decades to come. The magnitude of what this would mean, if it were to all be realized, is incredible.”
“If it were to all be realized” is a key phrase.
Other infrastructure plans have come and gone. President Donald Trump, Lalevee recalled, had his dreams of a $1 billion effort go nowhere.
Lalevee thinks this time may be different.
It’s not just the times — although anything to spark economic activity is getting a look — it’s the man proposing it, he said.
“You hear all these things about President Biden, like the cheese is off the cracker — let me tell you something, I don’t believe that for a second,” he said. “I think he’s one sly fox.”
Lalevee said Biden is not proposing to pay for everything — but to be an equal partner. That means even more projects can get done.
“They say it’s $2 trillion, it could be $4 trillion,” he said. “And that will appeal to governors everywhere. Even in red states.
“He’s coming to states saying, ‘I’ve got the other half of the money, what do you want to build?’ States are going to start ripping apart their DOT programs.”
Even states in the Midwest. This was another shrewd move, Lalevee said.
“Historically, whenever transportation spending comes up, it’s no longer red states and blue states, but the two coasts against the heartland,” he said. “Listen to how the president worded his thoughts on bridges.
“He said, ‘I’m going to fund the 10 bridges in the United States that have the most economic impact.’ I defy anyone to find such a list. But, I bet when it comes out, it will be filled with a lot of bridges that cross the Ohio, the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers.
“And I’ll bet one of them will be the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Cincinnati to Kentucky — which will be a nice present for (U.S. Sen.) Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“I thought it was political genius.”
Now, it’s the waiting game. Not so much for Congress to act — Lalevee is confident that something is going to get done. It’s more of a wait for the country to be ready to handle what could be coming.
“We’re going to struggle through this year,” he said. “There will still be a lot of aftershocks of COVID. You’ve got private developers rethinking projects and companies rethinking office space, and that has to all get shuffled out.
“But, one year from now, I think we’re going to be at the dawn of another economic boom. When we round the corner for 2022, I think we’re going to be looking at some really robust years of infrastructure work and infrastructure spending.
“The things that he has in this proposal have the potential to keep the construction industry and the economy and good jobs moving for a 20- to 40-year period.”