Even as he issued a stay-at-home order for residents Wednesday to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the pandemic offered an opportunity to speed up construction on normally snarled roads, and announced that he would advance some $2.1 billion in infrastructure projects.
It's a silver lining in the pandemic that many states are finding. With cars off the road as people are told not to venture out, crews are continuing their work and getting more done than usual.
"You look at some of the most busy thoroughfares, and sometimes it's a trickle," said DeSantis, a Republican, reflecting on what he's seen as he's traveled around the state in recent weeks. "I think there's an opportunity to take advantage of that."
In an economy that is increasingly shutting down, construction remains one relatively bright spot, declared essential by federal and state officials. Leaders in Washington signaled this week that they are looking to steer more money to infrastructure projects as a way to help the economy recover from the damage the virus has wrought.
Supporters of the idea say ramping up spending on transportation could help put people into work with dollars guaranteed to be spent inside the United States, while tackling a backlog in maintenance work that acts as a drag on the economy.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and key lieutenants pitched an existing five-year, $760 billion infrastructure investment plan as a recovery proposal. In a call with reporters, the speaker said the country needs "bold action to renew America's infrastructure."
"This is so essential because of the historic nature of the health and economic emergency that we are confronting," Pelosi said.
The plan is largely the same as the one that Democrats unveiled in January. But it would add $10 billion in funding for community health clinics, and Pelosi said it could be expanded further. While much of the money would be spent on rebuilding roads, bridges and transit networks, the plan also calls for investment in water and sewer infrastructure and broadband Internet.
Pelosi said Democrats would soon also unveil packages focused on education and housing, and that the House would be ready to move forward when lawmakers return to work in a few weeks. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he could turn the proposal into actual legislation in "very, very short order."
While both Democrats and President Donald Trump have long signaled interest in spending more on infrastructure, they've never reached an agreement on a plan. Lawmakers and officials have struggled to strike a bargain on how such a package would be funded.
It remains unclear whether a deal could be reached, but the pandemic might have opened a new opportunity. Republicans and Democrats alike have proven willing to turn to the federal coffers to keep a staggering economy going, without worrying about how to cover the tab. On Friday, the president signed the "phase 3" response to the virus, a $2 trillion package designed to quickly send money to struggling businesses and families.
Trump tweeted Tuesday expressing interest in using infrastructure spending as phase 4, to help the nation bounce back.
"With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars," he wrote.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin echoed the president in an interview on CNBC on Wednesday, saying he would continue to have conversations with lawmakers, including Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
"We expect there will be more bills, and we think it is a great time now to invest in infrastructure," Mnuchin said.
But in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to slow talk of moving on quickly to the next bill. He said that the Treasury already faced a complex undertaking in pushing the first round of stimulus money out to the country and that Pelosi ought not to move too quickly.
"We may need a phase four, but we're not even fully into phase three yet," McConnell said.
Pelosi said she saw no reason to take a pause after congressional leaders quickly passed through the first stages of their response to the pandemic.
"Nobody was waiting around to see what more was needed to be done," she said. "We know what is needed."
Passing an infrastructure bill could also resolve the need to reauthorize the regular federal highway fund, which is due to lapse at the end of September.
In the past, Congress has propped up the fund on a short-term basis when lawmakers couldn't agree to a long-term deal. But Jim Tymon, director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said such an approach would limit states' ability to plan major projects.
"It would really hamper economic recovery if we had to do a series of short-term extensions," Tymon said.
Organizations representing road building companies and state transportation agencies said there are projects ready to go if funding became available. And crews have been able to continue working even as governors have issued stay-at-home orders and mandated social distancing.
Supporters of boosting infrastructure spending say it would not only help put people back to work in the short term, but would also improve the nation's transportation capacity, lifting economic growth.
DeFazio said the current situation was likely to cause "one heck of a recession, potentially a depression," and that spending on infrastructure could help the economy in the way massive government programs did in the 1930s and '40s.
But there are reasons to be cautious about the scale of the potential benefits. The 2009 stimulus bill passed after the financial crisis required states to maintain their own transportation funding to get a federal boost, but 21 states were not able to do so.
Nonetheless, Alison Black, chief economist for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said a program could be designed to tackle those kinds of challenges while also giving the economy both a short- and long-term boost.