The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is the most comprehensive infrastructure law passed by Congress in decades. Unlike most legislation that focuses on a single infrastructure sector like transport or water, the IIJA reaches out to all major sectors to address a myriad of long-standing and emerging issues facing the American people, our economy and our natural world. It’s no exaggeration to say that the IIJA has the power to touch basically every American community.
But the size and complexity of the law has also made it difficult for the public to understand its mechanics. Take the IIJA’s total federal spending: is it $1.2 trillion, as reported by the Washington Post? Or the $1 trillion figure used by the Wall Street Journal? Or the $848 billion figure in the recently released White House guide data? The same goes for the hundreds of unique programs in the 1,000 page act; infographics in the national media summarized the main sections of the law, but they did not flag all of the individual programs under those headings. Meanwhile, lobbyists often put their IIJA deep dives behind paywalls or focus strictly on one infrastructure sector.
The IIJA is too big and too important to have this kind of information gap. What practitioners, researchers, journalists, and others need is a single place to see every program funded by the law, assess key features of those programs, and have direct access to all the information created by the agencies. federal authorities, trade associations and other industry partners who enforce the new law.
So that’s what we did. The new Brookings Federal Infrastructure Hub brings all this knowledge together in one place. This includes an interactive database of each IIJA program, spending details and key features. The information is free to download, and we have also designed the interactive to accommodate new data, which we will continue to develop in the months to come.
Now that we’ve spent a few months with the data, we have a better idea of the size of the IIJA and its impact on states and communities across the country. Here’s what we learned.
The Infrastructure Act is smaller and more road-focused than you might think
Despite what the headlines suggest, the IIJA is definitely not a $1 trillion or $1.2 trillion law. Instead, our calculations estimate that total spending will reach approximately $864 billion over five years. This includes all programs that received initial appropriations under the law, as well as guaranteed expenditures authorized by the contracting authority of the Highway Trust Fund (which is a complex accounting system, if you’re interested). For all other programs, we have estimated potential expenditures based on IIJA authorizations.
What is indisputable is that the IIJA is first and foremost a transport law. We estimate that $591 billion of $864 billion in total spending (or 68%) will go to transportation programs. And in transportation programs, $361 billion goes directly to various highway, road and bridge programs. For the federal government, the era of big highway spending will continue for at least another five years, even though many of these programs now allow greater flexibility to support climate and equity goals.
Despite the huge spending on roads, the IIJA is so comprehensive and extensive that there is still significant funding for many other priorities. The combined spending of $54 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safe and clean water programs is long overdue to keep people and our watersheds safe. The $45 billion committed to broadband deployments is the largest federal telecommunications investment in decades. The country will spend more than $29 billion to make electricity generation, transmission and distribution more reliable and resilient. Overall, we have 115 separate programs, sub-programs and earmarked funds that should receive at least $1 billion in funding.
The law could launch more than 100 new federal infrastructure programs
The IIJA is proof that Congress is willing to take risks and try new approaches to solving common challenges. Assuming future appropriations from Congress fund every program under the law, the IIJA will then have launched 129 new federal infrastructure programs or earmarked funds. This is a huge expansion in programming and will create real opportunities for the executive branch to rethink infrastructure administration over the next five years.
The bulk of these new programs (86) are competitive, which means that the leaders of the associated agencies will have wide latitude in establishing the initial rules of the program and designating the first years of the winners. The leadership team at the Department of Transportation will have the most opportunities, with 34 new programs and $37 billion to spend. The most significant new program here is the $12 billion bridge investment program, which could address the kinds of dangerous and costly situations seen on the Brent Spence and Hernando de Soto bridges over the past year. Department of Energy leadership will have similar opportunities to launch 24 new competitive grant programs totaling $33 billion. These include six programs, funded to the tune of $6.28 billion, to improve battery processing and manufacturing.
Key audiences should follow these new programs closely. For journalists, it is important to follow the operation of these programs (including the initial rules) and the places and projects rewarded. These decisions will be the easiest way for the Biden administration to convert its political priorities into physical investments. For national and local practitioners, it is imperative to review the new rules once announced and determine what grants may be available. Professional associations will continue to be instrumental here too, and we include links to many of their updated websites.
IIJA dramatically expands competitive grantmaking, but it’s still a formula-based law
The growth of competitive grantmaking has been a major story after the IIJA passed, and for good reason. Heads of all major federal infrastructure agencies will now have greater authority to direct federal resources than before, enabling agency leaders to pursue major national goals such as climate resilience and safer streets. However, these competitive grants are not essential elements of the law.
A total of $660 billion, or 76% of the entire act, is either paid directly to states and localities through a funding formula or to specific federal agencies for predetermined activities such as research or product monitoring. The law commits most of this spending formula to the transportation sector, where funds flow primarily to state highway programs and transit agencies. The EPA has seen an increase in water funding, with distributions already reaching states. There are also new formula programs, including the $42 billion Broadband Capital Account.
This type of size discrepancy has a functional implication for communities across the country: formula programs will often have a much greater impact on the types of projects that will be built in their jurisdictions. It also presents a complex puzzle around where to hire limited staff hours. Mayors, county executives and other leaders will need to balance the time and energy they spend lobbying state partners on how to spend formula dollars against creating competitive grant applications that local leaders would directly control. Each has a different set of risks, and in addition, state and local leaders will need to make IIJA-related decisions at the same time they are already managing funding for the American Rescue Plan Act.
Congress will remain the arbiter of the future scope of the law
Once the House and Senate passed the IIJA, the primary responsibility for implementing the law fell to the executive branch. However, that doesn’t mean Congress’s job is done. Although the IIJA provides an unusually large amount of initial appropriations to many programs, the annual Congressional appropriations process will still influence the future size and scope of these programs, including the ability to recover money.
This means that the politics around the infrastructure law is far from over. The results of the 2022 and 2024 federal elections – in particular, which party controls the House and Senate – could have a huge impact on which programs continue to receive support, which ones come under greater scrutiny and how any presidential administration decides to defend its priorities.
The law is a great achievement, but the job is far from done
Laws like the IIJA are not common. It takes years to establish the case for generational investment, then years more to build trust between insiders and outsiders to finalize legislation and gain support. The IIJA is proof that Washington can still make big bets on the country’s future, and it’s encouraging to see such significant investments in macro-economic needs like providing sustainable transportation, bridging the digital divide, remediation of lead pipes and modernization of the energy network.
It’s also a complicated law, with many more programs than many in Washington and across the country are used to. Yet, given the amount of money that will be spent and the stakes if we don’t get the right investments, it is essential that practitioners, researchers, journalists and others can understand the workings of the law. We hope our Brookings Federal Infrastructure Hub can help build the understanding the country needs to capitalize on this opportunity.