Why Joe Biden is pitching his infrastructure plan in Pittsburgh, where he launched and ended his campaign
The president returns today to a city long associated with heavy industry, but a place local leaders say offers a blueprint for how to build an economy for a new era.
When Joe Biden began his presidential campaign, he chose a Pittsburgh union hall for his first rally. He returned to the city for his first event after accepting the Democratic nomination last summer. And on the night before Election Day, he closed his campaign at the Steelers’ home stadium, Heinz Field.
Now, as he launches his second major initiative as president — a potentially $3 trillion infrastructure plan that could be his most ambitious legislation — Biden is returning Wednesday to the Southwestern Pennsylvania city long associated with labor unions and heavy industry. It’s now a place that local leaders say offers a blueprint for how to build an economy for a new era, after embracing tech and new modes of manufacturing.
“I remember him looking me in the eye and he says, ‘When I win, I’m going to be back here a lot because this is where middle America can rise again,’” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, recalling a small gathering with Biden and local officials in September.
The president is scheduled to be at a union hall Wednesday to introduce the first $2 trillion in what his administration is presenting as a once-in-a-century national investment. They have pitched the idea as not just a program for roads and bridges, but as a path toward a forward-looking and environmentally sound economy that lifts working-class people, including those in rural areas and communities of color. It would be financed by trillions of dollars in tax hikes on businesses, with more spending and taxes in a second prong of the plan introduced in the coming weeks.
“There’s a reason that of all the places Biden can go in the country he’s coming here. It’s because [the proposal] would do a lot for us and put people to work,” said Rep. Conor Lamb (D., Pa.), a Biden ally from the city’s suburbs. “Pittsburgh has a story about the way our economy was built and the type of life that it sustained for people: A respectable, middle-class life where you could save, own your own house, and feel like you were getting ahead.”
Biden’s plan would pour money into roads, bridges, public transit, railroads and airports, power grids and water systems, but also energy-efficient homes, and 5G telecommunications. There would be $620 billion for transportation infrastructure, a doubling of federal funds for public transit and an investment in 500,000 electrical vehicle charging stations. An additional $180 billion would go toward research and development, with a focus on clean energy, electric vehicles and more money would be set for manufacturing and training. The money would be spent over eight years.
Administration documents shared with reporters emphasized that the plan would seek to heal past inequities by investing in rural communities and communities of color, including by replacing lead pipes, rebuilding schools, and investing in public transit. Urban and rural areas would get high-speed broadband access, including for the 35% of rural Americans who lack it, to help businesses, workers, and students in underserved areas keep pace.
The potential tax hikes and price tag have already soured many Republicans and raised the strong possibility that despite pledges of unity, Biden’s second major push will advance the same way as his pandemic relief package: with no Republican votes and using a special process to skirt the Senate filibuster.
“Let’s do an infrastructure bill. Let’s not turn it into a massive effort to raise taxes on businesses and individuals,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said this week.
The corporate tax rate would rise to 28%, up from 21%, but below the 35% level it was at before the 2017 tax cuts passed by Republicans. That tax hike, along with others on businesses, would pay for the first phase of the program over the next 15 years, the administration said.
In arguing for just one of the benefits of a major infrastructure program, Lamb noted that much of Pittsburgh’s economy relies on access to its famous rivers: “It’s all dependent on locks and dams that are over 100 years old.”
He was one of several locals who said that after the long decline of the city’s steel industry, its embrace of new manufacturing modes and the tech economy — with hubs for Google and Apple and leading research into robotics and self-driving cars — shows how Pittsburgh can model Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan. The environmental group Climate Power 2020 noted more than 18,000 clean energy jobs in the city as another sign of economic evolution.
Fitzgerald, the county executive, pointed to the Obama administration’s investment in a robotics manufacturing site in the city as an example of how the government can help push the economy forward.
“We’re a template for what you can do to do it right,” said Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21, which connects research and development at Carnegie Mellon University with real-world uses in the Pittsburgh region. But despite all the high-tech advancement, she said, “we also have incredible, decaying infrastructure.”
Biden, whose 2020 victory depended heavily on Pennsylvania, visited Delaware County on March 16 to promote his first big bill, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package. He frequently marches in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day and St. Patrick’s Day parades.
“The speech is really about his vision, his vision for creating jobs, good-paying union jobs, and really investing in the industries of the future,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday, emphasizing clean energy and expanding high-speed internet access.
Such investments, if they live up to Biden’s promises, could be welcome in the areas that have struggled to adapt. Pittsburgh has rebounded with growth in hospitals, educational institutions and technology, but many surrounding towns “have not seen any resurgence or diversification since the 1980s,” said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh.
Another portion of the plan, to be introduced later, reportedly would invest in what some call “human infrastructure,” with proposals to provide free community college and universal pre-kindergarten, and a national paid leave program to help working parents care for children.
The effort — derided by Republicans as a “Trojan horse” for liberal ideas unrelated to infrastructure — follows closely on the heels of the massive coronavirus package. It represents another huge burst of spending intended to fulfill many of Biden’s core campaign promises, and to make a potentially defining long-term impact.
Biden is reportedly considering one of the largest tax increases in decades to pay for at least part of his plan. The taxes are likely to focus on corporations and the wealthy, who he argues benefitted disproportionately from the tax cuts signed by then-President Donald Trump. Biden has pledged not to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000.
Sam DeMarco, chairman of the Allegheny County GOP, questioned whether the government could efficiently spend that much on “shovel-ready” projects, and said new taxes could hurt businesses still struggling to emerge from the pandemic.
”The avalanche of spending, the tsunami of spending we’re getting from the White House today, is just proof of what Republicans were saying before the election of what Joe Biden was going to bring,” he said.
Biden has long pledged to roll back some of Trump’s tax cuts, including in his opening Pittsburgh campaign rally in 2019, when he previewed many of the themes animating his plan. That day he said it was time to “rethink what constitutes a successful economy” and called for “rebuilding” the middle class to reward “work, not wealth.”
Sylvia Wilson, a retired teacher and vice president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council executive board, said the pandemic has shown the importance of expanding broadband, especially for students who don’t have high-speed internet access, and called for more investment in public transportation, arguing that once you leave Pittsburgh, the options rapidly dwindle — another issue affecting opportunity and inequality for students and workers.
“Infrastructure is not just about roads and bridges,” Wilson said.
Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) said he hoped the plan will include federal money to rehabilitate crumbling schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere, and to build affordable housing.
Lamb, who represents a moderate district and is considering a run for U.S. Senate, said that when it comes to taxes “the devil is in the details” but predicted that some businesses would offer support.
“Businesses understand that they can’t solve the infrastructure problem on their own and they’re going to have to pay for part of it because they’re going to benefit,” he said. “It just has to be fair and I think everyone wants to know that their money is going to an important common purpose.”
And while he acknowledged the steep price tag, Lamb referred to the plan as “an investment.” He pointed as just one example to funding to replace lead pipes — providing health benefits and new jobs.