Supporters of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which the Senate approved with bipartisan support on Tuesday, have repeatedly characterized it as an investment of record-breaking size.
White House officials, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and social media users alike have all used the phrase “largest in history” to describe the infrastructure package, which includes $550 billion in new federal spending and another $450 billion renewing existing programs.
This is false. The package is certainly big: An analysis by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, concluded that the package would represent a “generational investment” and “easily the biggest infrastructure package in decades.” But it does not quite match the size of several federal investment projects in the 20th century by a few metrics.
Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings in metropolitan policy and the author of the report, told The New York Times that the package would bring federal infrastructure spending to about 1.25 percent of gross domestic product.
In comparison, infrastructure spending under the New Deal between 1933 and 1937 averaged 1.36 percent of G.D.P., according to Mr. Tomer’s analysis. Peak spending occurred in 1933 at 2.96 percent with the launch of the Public Works Administration, which funded and administered the construction of over 34,000 projects like the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City and the Hoover Dam.
Federal infrastructure spending declined in the following decades before increasing again in the 1970s and 1980s to about 2 percent of G.D.P. During that time, the government repaired and added miles to the Interstate Highway System and provided billions of dollars in grants to water utilities.
While the bipartisan package, which the House still has to pass, does not quite overtake the New Deal programs or highway and water projects in the 1970s and 1980s in size, Mr. Tomer said infrastructure spending would “certainly exceed” the New Deal investments if Democrats were able to also pass a separate $3.5 trillion economic package this year. That package is set to include additional infrastructure spending including upgrading Veterans Affairs hospitals, creating additional affordable housing units, improving Native American facilities, and investing in energy efficient buildings and clean ports.
In a separate analysis, Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation and the editor of Transportation Weekly, gauged the size of the infrastructure bill by using estimates from the Congressional Budget Office of the budget authority — or the amount of money Congress authorizes agencies to spend — provided by the bill. (Mr. Tomer focused on “outlays” or actual and projected expenditures.) By budget authority, infrastructure spending would total $840 billion over from 2022 to 2026. That’s about 3.45 of G.D.P. in 2022 alone, or 0.64 percent of G.D.P. over five years, Mr. Davis said.
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate highway system, authorized about $25 billion over 13 years. That amounted to about 6 percent of G.D.P. in 1957, or about 0.32 percent over the entire time span, by Mr. Davis’s calculations.
Mr. Davis also noted that there were no reliable estimates of large federal infrastructure spending from the earlier parts of American history, like the government bonds and land grants provided as part of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 to build the first transcontinental railroad or even land deals like the Louisiana Purchase.
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