WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden kicked off the public promotion of his recently passed $555 billion infrastructure bill with a visit to the Port of Baltimore on Wednesday as the White House tries to capitalize on the legislative win and use the bill to ease consumer's concerns about rising prices.
While the bill won't be signed until Monday and many projects are years away from being completed, the Biden administration is looking to make the spending more tangible to voters. Biden used the Baltimore port, which has avoided the shipping bottlenecks seen at other other ports, as an example of how investments in ports can address shipping delays and ease costs.
Improving the flow of cargo in and out of the country has become a key focus of the administration in recent months as pandemic-related disruptions to the global supply chain have left ports clogged with cargo and ships stuck at sea, leading to shortages and rising prices for consumers. Data released Wednesday showed the Consumer Price Index for October recorded a 6.2 percent increase, the largest increase in over 30 years.
Biden said the economic recovery isn't being felt by many people because consumer prices remain too high.
"They are looking out there and everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread costs more and it's worse even though wages are going up," Biden said. "We still face challenges. We have to tackle them, we have to tackle them head on."
Those pressures have contributed to growing dissatisfaction by voters of Biden’s handling of the economy and the overall job he's doing as president, according to recent polling.
Biden said Wednesday that his bill would lower inflation, citing a recent letter signed by 17 Nobel Laureates. But those economists said the reduction to inflation would come over the long term and made the assessment assuming the passage of Biden's social safety net package, as well.
"This bill is going to reduce the cost of goods to consumers, businesses and get people back to work helping us build an economy from a bottom up in the middle out that everybody's better off," Biden said. "You know, I'm tired of this trickle-down economy stuff."
The port stop is expected to be the first of many that Biden, cabinet officials and other surrogates make across the country over the next several weeks, in both red and blue states as well as urban and rural areas, the White House said.
Shortly after the infrastructure bill was passed late Friday night, White House officials contacted the Port of Baltimore about arranging a visit for Biden to tour the facility and see some of the recent investment it has made in new cranes and an additional berth, said William Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also visited the port, which is about an hour from Washington, over the summer.
The Port of Baltimore, which ranked as the 12th busiest port in the U.S. in 2020, hasn’t experienced the same level of congestion and delays in getting cargo off ships that other ports have despite becoming a growing hub for distribution centers from Amazon and big box retailers, like Home Depot, said Doyle.
Instead, the port has taken in ships that couldn’t get into other ports because they were so congested and was able to attract two new container services totaling 21 new ships a week from Asia and India. Doyle attributed the port’s ability to withstand the surge in shipping demand with investments the port has made in areas like additional cranes and dredging projects to allow larger ships to enter.
White House officials have said they see the legislative win as giving Democrats a boost for the 2022 midterm elections, and blamed losses in Virginia’s elections last week on Democrats' inability to pass the bill along with a larger social safety net spending plan ahead of that vote.
While improving the country’s infrastructure is widely supported by voters, it isn’t among the top issues they have listed as their biggest concerns in recent polling, such as the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, immigration and climate change. The White House has sought to convey to voters that the passage of the bill, which will include many projects years away from being completed, will have a near-term impact as well.
On Tuesday, the administration said the Department of Transportation would begin letting cost savings be redirected toward other projects, allowing one of the country’s most congested ports in Savannah, Georgia, reallocate more than $8 million to convert existing inland facilities into five pop-up container yards, getting cargo closer to its final destination and freeing up valuable space closer to the port. The effect of that project could be felt within the next 30 to 45 days, said a senior administration official.
Other short-term projects include a program to modernize ports and connecting highways with more than $240 million in grants over the next 45 days through the first federal grant program dedicated to port infrastructure, the administration said. The Army Corps of Engineers will identify within the next 60 days more than $4 billion worth of projects to repair outdated infrastructure and deepen harbors so larger container ships can enter, the White House said.
Within 90 days, the administration will designate $3.4 billion worth of projects to upgrade inspection facilities to make trade through the southern and northern land borders more efficient. It will also open bidding for the first round of $475 million in grants for port and marine highway infrastructure funded by the bill, the White House said.