In the next few weeks, Congress has the opportunity to pass a bill that promises to make sweeping and significant improvements in American infrastructure.
If passed, the investment could bring about better preservation efforts in Colorado’s forests and agricultural lands, improvements in some of Southwest Colorado’s main highways and stronger broadband throughout rural parts of the state.
The American Jobs Plan, released last week by President Joe Biden, would sink $2 trillion into a wide range of America’s infrastructure projects, including schools, child care, fire suppression, environmental cleanup, drought resiliency and high-speed broadband.
In Southwest Colorado, $1.5 billion would potentially go to Colorado’s roads and bridges infrastructure from the American Jobs Plan, said Matt Inzeo, communications director with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The plan, however, is in its early stages. It is difficult to confidently predict how exactly the money would be allocated, and it is unclear what provisions or restrictions would be put on how money allocated to states could be spent, Inzeo said.
Because of this, CDOT is not making plans around the proposals in the current outline of the American Jobs Plan just yet, but the priorities of the Biden administration line up nicely with CDOT’s own priorities, Inzeo said.
“There’s a lot of steps in the process yet to come,” he said. “We’re obviously going to follow that closely to better understand those details and the potential ramifications for the state.”
The American Jobs Plan proposes to invest $621 billion in transportation infrastructure and resilience. CDOT’s priorities for funding would go directly to its 10-year plan, Inzeo said.
“For the latter years (of the 10-year plan), we don’t yet have funding identified, and this is where, if the funding piece comes in, we know what we would put it to,” Inzeo said. “We’ve identified those needs and have a pretty good scope for those projects.”
For Southwest Colorado, projects in CDOT’s 10-year plan include restoring and revitalizing U.S. highways 160 and 550, which intersect in Durango.
“If funding becomes available, we know what we’re gonna push through the pipeline for this part of the state,” Inzeo said. “That’s been a process that we did extensively with local communities and governments and stakeholders, and it’s a matter of being able to afford it.”
About $3 billion of the 10-year plan lacks funding.
The American Jobs Plan also proposes billions of dollars of investments into land and water resources, western drought resilience efforts, clean water and a new Civilian Climate Corps, among other environmental investments.
Heidi Steltzer, a climate change expert and professor at Fort Lewis College, said aspects of the plan that will help foster soil restoration, such as investments into land and water resilience, will be the most important for Southwest Colorado’s ecosystem and agriculture.
“Land management practices associated with more industrialized approaches to agriculture have depleted the health of soil over time,” Steltzer said. “So, we’ve lost some of the health of soil, and it’s a renewable resource, so we can make the choices to return that health back to the system.”
The American Jobs Plan also proposes an investment of $10 billion into creating a new Civilian Climate Corps, which would push an environmental justice effort to conserve public lands and waters and combat the negative effects of climate change.
Steltzer said implementing a Civilian Climate Corps would “keep motivating positive change to care more for the lands and waters that we depend on.” She said a new Civilian Climate Corps would create more job opportunities in rural areas.
“I teach students at Fort Lewis skill sets, and these are the jobs they could get with the skill sets that I teach,” Steltzer said. “So the exciting part is, (these are) the jobs materializing that students are prepared for. There are great students in our region ready to do this work.”
The massive federal spending bill needs approval from the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate before becoming a reality. The plan is expected to be voted on along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
The House and Senate have not yet set dates for debating or voting on the American Jobs Plan, but the specifics of the plan are subject to change as it makes its way through the two chambers.
However the funding ends up being distributed, Steltzer said she hopes it is distributed equitably.
“When programs like this – and investments like this – happen, can we grow equity from them? Can we help to reconcile for some of the injustices of the past?” Steltzer said. “I think attention to that is an incredibly important part.”
Grace George is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.