The Senate on Tuesday approved a sweeping new infrastructure bill that stands to inject around $1 trillion over five years into tightening up America's sagging roads, waterways, and bridges--and small business has a key role.
"There is an opportunity for small businesses across sectors--from the building and construction industry to the telecommunications industry, rail, cyber security, technology, and more--to bid on and participate in the building out of the range of infrastructure projects and initiatives provided for in the act," says Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Vienna, Virginia.
To wit: The bill, formally dubbed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, calls for $550 billion in new spending above and beyond existing authorized funding. Appropriations include $17 billion for shoring up port infrastructure and $25 billion for airports to address repair and maintenance backlogs. There's $65 billion for broadband infrastructure and $7.5 billion for building out a network of electric vehicle chargers along highways and in rural and disadvantaged communities. There's also $110 billion for rebuilding roads, bridges, and attendant surface transportation projects. Get your shovels ready.
Access to bidding on these projects is bound to deliver a boost for many small firms. For certain programs, not less than 10 percent of the money available has to be spent through small businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. That includes women-owned businesses. A small business, in this case, is one whose average annual gross receipts during the preceding three fiscal years didn't exceed $26.3 million.
There's one big caveat. You'll have to pay employees a minimum of $15 an hour. President Biden recently signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage. That's up from $10.95 an hour, while the national minimum wage still rests at $7.25. The new minimum is expected to take effect next year.
"Already, some small businesses may have difficulty competing on the projects against larger firms given prevailing wage requirements," says Kerrigan.
Congress did make some concessions to employers. An amendment that would have required companies receiving federal funds to enroll in e-verify--a system through which companies confirm employees' eligibility to work in the United States--failed. Small- business advocates tend to claim that meeting the demands of the e-verify system, which is typically used to ensure employers aren't able to hire undocumented immigrants, ends up being a time suck for resource-strapped businesses.
While some stakeholders have questioned the plan to redirect $205 billion--$38 billion of which comes from small-business aid programs--in untapped Covid-relief funds toward this infrastructure bill, there are plenty of reasons to like it.
"Ultimately small business, like large businesses, will benefit from improvements in transportation," says Robert Litan, an economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. He notes, however, that it's unclear at this point how much of the money will be allocated to smaller businesses. "That will be decided at the state and local levels," he adds.
Even so, the legislative text does reveal other worthwhile inducements for smaller companies--particularly manufacturing firms. Here are three:
1. Modernization Guidance
The bill authorizes different assessment authorities such as the Department of Energy's industrial research and assessment centers to provide recommendations to improve both energy efficiency and sustainability concerns. In other words, if you've been wanting to retrofit your facility or adopt smart manufacturing techniques and technologies, now's your chance. The smart manufacturing assessments are geared specifically to small to midsize firms--defined as companies with less than $100 million in annual revenue and fewer than 500 employees--while energy efficiency guidance would be available to companies of all sizes.
2. Money for Energy Efficiency Upgrades
The government will provide grants and loan assistance to firms that pursue energy upgrade assessments. Grants may not exceed 50 percent of project's cost, up to $300,000. The Small Business Administration has also been instructed to expedite loan applications from eligible small businesses to implement the recommendations.
3. Workforce Training
The bill also allots money for workforce training and paying up to 50 percent of the salaries of the trainers who are implementing needed upgrades. The bill says the U.S. government will pay the "federal share," or half, of the cost of an internship or apprenticeship program in which students work with or for industries, manufacturers, and energy service providers to implement the recommendations of industrial research and assessment centers.