Mar. 31—Moments before boarding a plane at the Allegheny County Airport in late August, then-Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden paused to talk directly to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
While masked up and keeping 6 feet back, "He looked me in the eye and said, 'I'll be back when we win the election,' " recalled Fitzgerald of his interaction with President Biden. The brief conversation happened shortly after one of Biden's first campaign stops since covid-19 struck the nation.
At the limited-access event at Hazelwood Green brownfield project in Pittsburgh, Biden promised he wouldn't seek a blanket ban on fracking and condemned protest violence as well as police brutality.
When he spoke to Fitzgerald, Biden focused on wanting to return to discuss ways to bolster infrastructure and economic development, particularly in places still yearning to reinvent their economies after years of population and job loss.
Biden also cited goals of federally spurred jobs — and working for "the forgotten man" — during his subsequent "Made in America" Amtrak tour through Allegheny and Westmoreland counties in late September, and again during his drive-in rally featuring Lady Gaga in a parking lot outside Heinz Field the night before the election.
Sixty days into his presidency, President Biden is heading back to Western Pennsylvania to tout key pieces of his "Build Back Better" infrastructure package during a brief stop just southwest of Pittsburgh on Wednesday afternoon.
"Here he is, living up to what he said," Fitzgerald told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday afternoon. "He cares about this region, and the fact that he's now coming here to deliver this big infrastructure policy speech here fits into what we're doing. ... This region is poised to grow. And it's not just about Allegheny County or Pittsburgh, it's about Washington County and Butler County and Washington and Armstrong. ... We're all doing this together."
Biden to announce 'American Jobs Plan'
Biden is expected to unveil an ambitious, far-reaching plan that would pump money into infrastructure, revive domestic manufacturing, reduce the impact of climate change and keep the United States competitive with China.
"It's wonderful that he chose Pittsburgh to announce this key infrastructure plan," said Matt Smith, chair of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and a former state senator who sits on Gov. Wolf's newly formed transportation funding commission.
The physical infrastructure part of Biden's package is not just about updating roads, bridges, rail, public transit and airports, though it's likely to include fresh pots of funding for many such capital projects nationwide.
The plan also is expected to include broadband, electric vehicle charging stations and investments in clean energy and domestic manufacturing.
"Pittsburgh is so well-positioned to be at the forefront of this kind of investment, because we're really in many ways sitting at the nexus of infrastructure, of manufacturing, of innovation. It's all happening here, and we think that this kind of investment would really catalyze further continued growth for the region," Smith said. "We have a proven history of public-private collaboration, we have university partnerships that drive innovation and encourage competitiveness, and we also have business and labor working together, which is a really significant thing."
Biden's plan is generating excitement among local politicians, unions, business leaders, environmental advocates and cash-strapped transportation agencies.
Port Authority of Allegheny County could benefit from federal money for a wide range of projects, such as electrifying a bus fleet, extending a busway, buying new light-rail cars to replace those "at the very tail-end of their cycle," agency spokesman Adam Brandolph said.
"There are no shortage of capital investments that we could put money toward in our network that would make for better public transit for Allegheny County and enhance service," Brandolph said. "Capital funding provides jobs. It's engineers, it's design work, it's green infrastructure and technology jobs. It's also the people who build things or to purchase things that other people build. And ensuring public transit is properly funded creates an ecosystem that's good for employers and employees, for getting people jobs, to schools."
Should the presidential motorcade take the Parkway West, Biden may catch a glimpse of a newly posted billboard thanking him for getting the latest covid relief package through Congress, with several such billboards put up by Real Recovery Now!, coalition of progressive and labor groups. The group next is calling on Congress to advance Biden's "Build Back Better" initiative "so everyone can thrive with millions of good-paying and quality jobs."
Republicans, however, have balked at the scope of the enormous infrastructure package — expected to amount to about $3 trillion — and the potential tax increases needed to pay for it.
"Let's do an infrastructure bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday at a stop in his home state of Kentucky. "Let's not turn it into a massive effort to raise taxes on businesses and individuals."
How to pay for it?
Biden's plan could ring upwards of $3 trillion.
The final price tag is in flux, with reports that it could be as high as $4 trillion. The Associated Press reported that one White House official said Monday night that it may end up being closer to $3 trillion.
GOP leaders have pledged to oppose any infrastructure plans that unwind Trump's 2017 corporate tax rate cuts. Biden has vowed not to raise taxes on households earning less than $400,000 a year.
"Everyone seems to like infrastructure, and then the question becomes, how do you pay for it?" Fitzgerald said. "There's no question there needs to be new revenue, and there will be political disagreements over how to do that. ... What the president is talking about doing is having some of those corporations pay a little more."
Smith, of the Allegheny Conference, says he and some fellow regional leaders aren't in support of some potential sources of revenue — such as higher tax rates for corporations.
"We're not in favor of an increase in the corporate tax," Smith said. "We don't think that making ourselves less competitive in one area to make ourselves more competitive in another is the way to go."
Still, after more than a decade without such a significant federal infusion, Smith said more money being pumped into infrastructure is "critical for the Pittsburgh region to reach its economic potential."
"We think there will be time for discussion on how to fund it," Smith said. "Our view is that his is a really worthwhile investment over the long term, because it has a high return on investment."
Beyond tax increases, the Biden administration could attempt to free up cash by changing how Medicare can negotiate the price of pharmaceutical drugs, or step up IRS audits of wealthier Americans, The Associated Press reports.
With the Senate evenly split, 50-50, Democrats could be once again forced to rely on their own votes to get Biden's proposed legislation passed.
"The president has a plan to fix our infrastructure and a plan to pay for it," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. "But we certainly expect to have the discussion with members of Congress, as we move forward, about areas where they agree, where they disagree, where they would like to see greater emphasis or not."
Meanwhile, funding from the $2.3 billion transportation bill passed under former Gov. Tom Corbett is drying up, leaving agencies who relied on operational support from the legislation approaching the brink of funding cliffs.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .
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