Here’s what the Biden infrastructure bill could mean for Berkeley

The $1.2 trillion bill could fund a faster BART commute and repair Bay Area bridges — but don’t expect it to fix Berkeley’s potholes.

drone footage of Berkeley pedestrian bridge
Low-lying Interstate 80 in Berkeley could be a candidate for new funding from the Biden infrastructure bill to protect key highways from sea level rise. File photo: Phil Rowntree

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package President Joe Biden signed Monday is expected to pour billions of dollars into the Bay Area, where the surge of new spending could help repair aging bridges, protect key highways from sea level rise and make BART commutes quicker.

In Berkeley, the bill could fund new zero-emission AC Transit buses and street safety improvements, among other potential uses. But for some infrastructure needs, namely repaving local roads, its impact could be a lot more limited.

Overall, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will substantially increase federal spending — though not to the extent many Democrats had hoped — on a broad range of programs throughout the country, from high-speed rail and highway repairs to lead pipe replacement and expanding broadband access.

Berkeley Public Works Director Liam Garland said the bill could help fund work on Ashby and San Pablo avenues, which are state highways.

In general, though, the federal government doesn’t provide funding for local road repairs, said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. That means the vast majority of Berkeley streets — which a recent MTC report rated “at-risk,” with a score of 58 out of 100, and which Garland said were in “unacceptable” condition — are not expected to reap the federal windfall.

“Dollars from this bill are unlikely to flow to our city’s local streets, sidewalks, storm drains, green infrastructure, parks, recreation facilities, marina and public buildings,” Garland wrote in an email, “and we’ll have to figure out a way to address these local needs one way or another.”

To that end, Berkeley officials are in the early stages of considering whether to put a measure before voters on the 2022 ballot that would raise money for road repairs and other infrastructure needs.

The new federal legislation has a brighter outlook for many other local projects, however.

Precisely how the bill will affect Berkeley and the rest of the Bay Area is still not yet clear, because in most cases it does not spell out specific projects that will receive funding.

Still, estimates based on the formulas the federal government uses to distribute money to states and regions indicate the bill will direct about $4.5 billion to the Bay Area for roads and public transit projects, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The region will also get a share of the $4.2 billion likely headed to California for bridge repairs, as well as $380 million statewide for new electric car charging stations.

BART officials say they anticipate the bill will provide additional formula funding for the system’s Train Control Modernization Program, a package of upgrades that will allow BART trains to run more frequently, increasing the system’s capacity and giving riders a less-crowded trip at rush hour.

In other cases, local projects will be candidates for money from federal programs that will get a boost from the legislation. A program funding work to make transportation infrastructure more resilient in the face of climate change, for instance, could pay for work to safeguard low-lying freeways such as Interstate 80 in Berkeley or Highway 37 in the North Bay, Rentschler said.

For Berkeley bus riders, AC Transit General Manager Michael Hursh said in a statement that the bill could fund new electric charging and hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

“It means that AC Transit and BART and the core systems that the people of the East Bay rely on have a much larger commitment from the federal government,” Rentschler said.

And Berkeley could also see a healthier San Francisco Bay as a result of the bill — it includes $24 million for Environmental Protection Agency restoration projects in the bay, along with increased funding for the San Francisco Estuary Partnership.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.