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Bipartisan Deal Creates Special Hiring, Pay Authorities for New Agency to Launch Infrastructure Projects

Agency would mirror organizations within the departments of Defense and Energy.

The bipartisan infrastructure package agreed to over the weekend would create a new agency in the Transportation Department to fund innovative projects, with lawmakers providing the organization free reign to hire without restrictions and to pay higher salaries than those of most civil service jobs. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, negotiated in recent months by a bipartisan group of 10 senators and the White House, would launch the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure to provide grants to universities, companies and research foundations working on early-stage projects. The funds would go toward projects the private sector would be unlikely to take on without assistance due to “technical and financial uncertainty.” Research conducted with the grants would be aimed at reducing costs of the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and mass transit, lowering the environmental impacts of related projects and boosting their resiliency to physical and cyber threats.

ARPA-I would be headed up by a Senate-confirmed director, who would then be granted wide latitude to build a workforce for the agency. The measure would allow the agency to staff up as necessary to carry out its obligations and "without regard to the civil service laws." The director would set pay rates as he or she saw fit but capped at level two of the Executive Schedule, which in 2021 is $199,300. Employees could also earn annual bonuses of up to $25,000 or 25% of their salaries. Lawmakers proposed authorizing the agency to contract with private recruiting firms to help with staffing.

The civil service rules for ARPA-I would largely mirror those established for ARPA-Energy, which was stood up in 2009. ARPA-E, like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, seeks to fund high-risk projects and research unlikely to be pursued otherwise. ARPA-I’s clerical and administrative staff would be hired under regular civil service procedures. 

The language was included in the infrastructure plan after tense negotiations over the package and how to fund the roughly $1 trillion in spending. The Senate is expected to take up the measure this week before it goes to the House. 

The ARPA-I idea was first pitched as part of President Biden’s budget, which sought $2 billion for the initiative. 

“ARPA-I would focus its efforts on accelerating novel, early-stage research projects with potential for transformational advances in areas that industry is unlikely to undertake,” the Transportation Department said of the proposal. 

The lawmakers authorized funding for ARPA-I “such sums as are necessary” to carry out the agency’s mission. Its appropriations will be separate and in addition to the funding lawmakers provide to Transportation writ large. In 2024, the National Academy of Sciences would launch an evaluation of ARPA-I to determine its effectiveness and whether it should continue to exist. 

Senate Democrats are expected to soon move forward with another package to authorize additional infrastructure spending and other legislative priorities through a process that would not require any Republican support. That measure is expected to contain sweeping operational reforms for agencies across government, including a major boost to funding and hiring at the Internal Revenue Service.