UCS Is Following the Money in California

June 6, 2024 | 12:20 pm
GRID Alternatives employees install no-cost solar panels on the rooftop of a low-income household in October 2023 in Pomona, California.Mario Tama/Getty Images
Amanda Fencl
Western States Senior Climate Scientist

There is a historic level of funding flowing from the US government to states, territories, Native American Nations, and community-based organizations. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) is one of the main sources of this federal funding, alongside the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). My UCS colleagues have previously written about the importance of BIL to address long overdue upgrades to infrastructure and invest in climate resilience. Yet it remains to be seen whether the massive influx of federal funding from BIL and IRA will catalyze environmental and climate justice the way the Biden administration envisions.

Today UCS released a new report providing a first look at where non-transportation BIL money has gone in California. Tracking where this money is going—and whether it is reaching underserved and marginalized communities who need and deserve it the most—is critical. That’s what led UCS and a team of Harvey Mudd College students to analyze federal spending data and build an online dashboard to follow the money (you can interact with it here: https://followthemoney.netlify.app/).  And you can learn more about this new UCS analysis at https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/follow-money

BIL is a big deal

BIL represents the largest federal investment ever in public transit, clean drinking water, and wastewater infrastructure, the largest in passenger rail in more than 50 years, and largest investment in bridges since the creation of the interstate highway system. 

This money is sorely needed. We all interact with public infrastructure systems daily. When we turn on our faucets or flush our toilets, most of us trust the pipelines moving drinking water and wastewater to do their jobs. When we flip a light switch, we’re connected to a complicated network of power lines responsible for keeping the lights on. We often take for granted that these systems will keep providing the services we rely on, and only notice if and when they stop working. But the United States is not doing well at maintaining these critical infrastructure systems.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated a $2.58 trillion investment gap in critical infrastructure between 2020 and 2029. Nationally, current major infrastructure systems barely received a passing grade in 2021, indicating deficient conditions, operations, and maintenance, and insufficient capacity, funding, and resilience. To be reliable, infrastructure needs continued investment. BIL is helping to close the investment gap.

Just how much money are we talking about? 

According to the official BIL Guidebook, $840 billion is available under BIL across thirteen different high-level categories, and more than 375 different programs and sixteen different federal agencies. Two-thirds of this money is intended for sorely needed transportation projects, including roads, rails, water ways, airport, and public transportation categories. The new study from UCS does not include federal transportation funding from BIL because California is already tracking this money. The remaining $270 billion will fund projects in areas like water, climate resilience, and clean energy and power. With some exceptions, BIL funding needs to be distributed by 2026. According to the White House’s Map of Progress, federal agencies have announced $454 billion in awards, or 54% of the available funding (as of April 2024).

Data from BIL Guidebook helps illustrate the apportionment of the $840 billion under BIL, by major infrastructure categories. 

Many BIL programs are covered by Justice 40

Historically, the federal government has been known to use infrastructure to marginalize and disenfranchise certain communities while enabling others to inequitably benefit. This is why it’s great that many of BIL’s funding programs are covered by the Biden Administration’s Justice 40 initiative, which sets a goal of at least 40% of the benefits of certain (“covered”) federal investments flowing to communities that are marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.

A Justice40 “covered” investment is one that falls within the Justice40 categories of climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, environmental remediation, and clean water and wastewater infrastructure. With some exception, this covers most of the BIL investment areas. Justice40 is an important tool, and reflects the first meaningful attempt in decades to shape the distribution of benefits toward communities that have been left behind by the government for far too long.  

This is also why BIL is a big deal: federal funding program administrators have an opportunity to make investment decisions differently from the past. Infrastructure systems need to be built to last to withstand climate change, contribute to emissions reduction targets—and prioritize equitable outcomes.

How are we doing at the halfway point?

Advocates and scholars have long demonstrated how federal funding programs are not adequately reaching historically marginalized and underserved communities. It can be challenging to attempt to rectify injustices through infrastructure investments; without guardrails and accountability, more well-resourced applicants are likely to be the most successful in accessing funding. And the federal government has worked tirelessly to get more money out the door than ever before, without adequate administrative support in place to do so. 

At the halfway point of BIL implementation, pausing and following the BIL money from the funding agencies to the community is one mechanism to assess progress toward Justice40 goals. This is what our new study does for California.

What did we learn?

In our new UCS report, we provide a first look at where non-transportation BIL investments have gone in California. California is the beneficiary of the largest amounts of BIL funding due to its size and eligibility for formula awards. UCS worked with a team of Harvey Mudd College students to build an online dashboard to interact with our findings: https://followthemoney.netlify.app/.  

We found that of the $779 million in local awards that we analyzed, only $190 million is going to federally designated disadvantaged communities in California. This is just 24% of the analyzed funding, falling short of Justice40 goals of getting 40% of the benefits to communities that are historically underserved and overburdened by pollution.

There is also a lot of money that cannot be analyzed yet. California state agencies received $1.31 billion in awards with a statewide place of performance, meaning that we were not able to analyze this funding at the community level without additional data. The State Water Board is responsible for implementing 87 percent of federal BIL funding ($1.19 billion) and ten other state agencies are responsible for implementing the remaining $123 million in BIL statewide grants. State agency spending and allocation decisions are critical to ensuring equitable BIL spending, and should be tracked. Unfortunately, publicly available data prevent systematic analyses of whether this funding flows to communities prioritized by Justice40.

Despite an explicit justice and equity emphasis through the Justice 40 Initiative and federal agency commitments, we need a transparent, unified Justice40 tracking system that ensures we are making progress towards these goals. As UCS has previously recommended, more transparency at multiple levels is a key way to strengthen Justice40. Accurate accounting is a prerequisite for ensuring that both the public and policymakers have access to transparent data on federal spending.

With less than three years of this funding remaining, there is still more work to do. More federal investments must reach the communities that need them most. When this happens, we’re more likely to see thriving, healthy, prosperous communities.

We’re at a critical moment in California. The transition to a clean energy and climate-resilient future is underway, and we have to get it right. If the state is going to continue to lead on environmental justice, then our elected leaders and state agencies must help ensure that the federal dollars flowing into California go where they are needed most. California can lead by example in demonstrating how infrastructure investments in the state contribute to Justice40 goals.  

Learn more about this new UCS analysis at https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/follow-money.