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Massachusetts needs advance planning if it wants to capitalize on Biden infrastructure plan, economists say

President Joe Biden speaks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, during an event on clean cars and trucks. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden speaks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, during an event on clean cars and trucks. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Biden’s $550 billion infrastructure bill to boost spending on highways, ports, broadband and green initiatives could be a boost to states, but economists warn Massachusetts could squander its potential windfall if it doesn’t line up “shovel-worthy” projects.

“There are a lot of dollars that are going to be coming to Massachusetts no matter what. But there are also going to be competitive grant programs and the Biden administration will be deciding how to distribute dollars. There’s no guarantee Massachusetts will get this money,” said Tom Ryan, senior adviser on Policy for A Better City.

A report released by ABC and Ryan last week makes three key recommendations to state officials looking to capitalize on the next round of federal dollars inching toward Congressional approval.

It calls on the state Legislature to override a recent veto from Gov. Charlie Baker and require the MBTA to do advance planning and design work of transit projects, calls on the MBTA to reallocate $50 million from its reserve funds to jumpstart projects and advance changes in procurement laws to jumpstart projects.

But Baker’s administration is keeping its cards close to the vest.

“We will review the final legislation,” MassDOT spokeswoman Jacque Goddard said in a statement to the Herald.

It’s also a chance for Massachusetts to cash in and develop some pie-in-the-sky projects.

“This is the biggest chance for an East-West rail probably ever,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who first pitched the idea for an east-west connector.

Lesser, who served under former President Barack Obama top adviser David Axelrod when the 2009 stimulus money was being doled out, recited some lessons learned during the previous disbursement.

“One of the things that was absolutely clear was that the federal government looks for projects that were shovel-ready and would create jobs,” Lesser said.

But the Biden administration has said it plans to spend the $550 billion included in the infrastructure plan on a wide range of projects that would propel climate change resiliency projects and green initiatives beyond roads and bridges.

Biden on Thursday signed a legally nonbinding executive order announcing a target of having half of all vehicles sold in 2030 be zero-emission vehicles which currently account for just 2% of vehicle sales.

Biden’s infrastructure bill includes funding for a national network of electric vehicle charging stations and tax credits for consumers looking to buy electric vehicles as an incentive to boost sales.

Those plans could be a boon for Massachusetts, where targets are to reduce overall emissions 50% of 1990 numbers by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. It could also jumpstart the Baker-championed Transportation Climate Initiative that plans to impose a cap-and-invest gas tax starting in 2023 to incentivize a turn away from gas-powered cars.

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