America is approaching two and a half years since Congress enacted the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure investment injection designed to transform an outdated and struggling infrastructure network. Together with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the two pieces of legislation sought to broaden the notion of traditional American infrastructure by including expansive priorities, while also prioritizing climate change through sustainability and resiliency initiatives. In essence, the legislation elevated reliable formula funding, while also massively expanding the availability of discretionary grants. While bridge projects came out of the gate strong, other programs struggled to meet lofty objectives because of inflation, backlog and discretionary grant confusion. With all of that in mind, is the IIJA/IRA working? Is it creating certainty in construction and the overall economy? Moreover, do we expect construction and project uncertainty considering it’s a Presidential election year, Congress is functioning under a Continuing Resolution (legislation that keeps funding at existing levels in the absence of new appropriations bills), and partisan extremes could fuel the fire for gridlock?

Back to the question of the day: Is the IIJA/IRA working? Depends on who you ask but, in short, infrastructure investment is one area where our nation should feel optimistic, if not confident. While inflation took the thrust out of the first two years of the bill, across the country the money that has regularly flowed from the federal government is translating into projects. Construction confidence across the U.S. is high. Consumer inflation and prices remain high but are being offset in part by strong wage performance and job growth. Construction inflation is being offset in some segments by the reliability of anticipated federal funding. One could still rightly argue that the legislation isn’t as transformative as intended. Because of inflation, much of what has been expended, particularly in paving, has caused the focus to be on repair work and not new capacity. So, I suggest to those asking the question as to whether it’s working if we are actually asking the wrong question. Rather, we need to ask questions that prepare us for what happens when the authorization expires, as that is where the real uncertainty lies, because what would we be doing right now without the IIJA?

The IIJA authorization will expire in September, 2026. In politics, that is a lifetime away. Of note, the expiration is also right before a mid-term election. But between now and then we can reasonably expect, depending on who controls Congress and the Administration, a politicization of the IIJA, particularly if any portions of the bill are going unspent. Depending on margins, certain climate change provisions will also be red meat. So, if we have a debate over the effectiveness of the IIJA, how does that fare for a re-authorization, which we should all agree is going to be needed if we truly want to transform America’s infrastructure? Likely, a re-authorization won’t happen quickly and, certainly, the funding levels, discretionary grants and self-appropriating authorization won’t happen again. That was once in a lifetime.

While I am optimistic that Congress will find a path to keep the government open, spending and the economy are going to be partisan issues and Continuing Resolutions may remain the patchwork play Congress runs. Unfortunately, those are not the uncertainties we face, nor the questions we must ask. I pose that as politics plays out, we in the construction industry, particularly those invested in roads and highways, must start to ask what comes next. It’s tough when you’re in the here and now to focus on the future. The dollars didn’t go as far as we thought, inflation is still high, workforce challenges will remain, infrastructure will not have been revolutionized and climate challenges will still exist. The list goes on…So what’s next? That’s the uncertainty we face.