Joe Biden declared, “We’re fixing them all,” awkwardly appearing to deliver a speech to promote his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill hours after Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge fell in January. We’re sending money
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains $40 billion of funding for the improvement of 43,000 bridges across the country. However, that is a small sum compared to $156 billion allocated to rail and mass transit (plus the $70 million that was used to transport in emergency relief) and the many billions of additional funds on green energy and broadband.
It’s false that Washington actually sends the money. Because of Congress’ longstanding inability to perform one of its most basic functions—pass a budget—significant swathes of transportation spending are stalled at 2020 levels. Over a trillion dollars was authorized by the infrastructure bill in November. Before all that money goes out, however, it is necessary to have an appropriations bill.
Carlos Monje (the Transportation Department’s undersecretary of policy) explained that while the department had begun moving forward with as many parts of the bill, some programs were hampered due to legislative issues that result from the ongoing resolution.
According to the infrastructure law, $118 billion was deposited into Highway Trust Fund. This fund cannot pay all its expenses from gas taxes revenue. However, the continuing resolution (C.R.)—the stopgap budget measure Congress passes when it can’t get its act together to do a proper annual budget—that money can only be spent at 2020 levels, which means there’s about $9 billion for roads and $3 billion for transit stuck in limbo. This C.R. It is expected that the C.R.
Also, it’s not true that we will fix all of them even if the money starts flowing. Although the Fern Hollow Bridge has been in poor condition for many years, the bill did not include it on the list. The reason it is not on the federal list doesn’t seem unreasonable. Pennsylvanians already pay just above $0.58 per gallon for the third highest gasoline tax in the country. A 2019 audit revealed that the $4.2 billion of gas tax revenue that could be used for road and bridge repairs had been diverted over six years in order to finance state police. The cost of repairing the bridge is estimated at $1.3million in 2017.
Fern Hollow is just one example of the larger issue. It has not been an inability to raise funds. The problem is that money often flows from unpredicted sources, and ends up being spent elsewhere via heavily politicized decisions-making processes.
The question remains as to why the cost of building infrastructure in the United States is so high and so slow. It is sixth most expensive to construct rapid-rail infrastructure in America, such as the New York City subway and the Washington, D.C. metro systems.
The reason may be partly due to waste and corruption. Federal infrastructure bills have created huge incentives to rent-seeking and inflated the sector of municipal lobbying. Like contestants on a game show, states and localities are scrambling for dollars, correctly understanding that this might be the only major windfall in this area for a decade or more—again, largely due to Congress’ inability to do its job in a predictable way in concert with a chief executive who can set clear achievable policy priorities.
According to OpenSecrets data, more than 1000 municipal entities spent less than $50 million on federal lobbyists during the second half 2021 when the infrastructure bill passed. This figure is 7 percent more than that of $46.7 million municipal entities spent during the same time period in 2020. That was not a bad result considering the ongoing federal pandemic. This number is likely to underestimate the actual demand since it does not include contracts that were signed at the end.
To tap into new infrastructure money, it is theoretically possible to do so without the help of a lobbyist. At the end of January, Mitch Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans who is overseeing infrastructure spending for the Biden administration, proudly announced the existence of a 465-page guidebook that explains the different pots of money available to communities, along with a data file that is—get this—searchable!
There is no reason to believe that the U.S. scores significantly lower on these metrics than any other industrialized nation. While some cost factors, like material and labor are important, these don’t account for the full extent of the gap. Recent studies of interstate highway systems by Leah Brooks, George Washington University Professor and Zachary Liscow, Yale University Professor and Yale University student suggest that “citizen Voice” is the X factor. This can be in the form of legitimate opposition or environmental regulation foot dragging.
Republicans attempted to detangle the mess during interminable negotiations about the bill. The Republicans called their “One Federal Decision Framework” framework. It streamlines approval of projects that have been reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act. Lead agencies are limited to final decision-making for a period of 90 days. However, there are many reasons for a project to be pulled from the fast-track. In the January memo after passage, it was clarified that any project that requires a new right-of-way is not eligible to undergo the streamlined review.
This problem is not new. Eli Dourado is a policy analyst at Utah State’s Center for Growth and Opportunity. The Week that infrastructure projects funded by then-President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus were subject to nearly 200,000 environmental reviews.
This regulation is not only for rail, classic bridge and road spending, but also all other projects. Companies building hyperloop-based high-speed tunnels can now be eligible for federal funds under the infrastructure bill. A Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council was created by the Department of Transportation in order to help “support safe transportation deployment.” Although this may sound promising for people who love innovations in transportation, those with a deeper understanding of the actual process will be disappointed.
As in many other areas that are distorted due to government spending or regulation, this is where the best chance of success lies. Maybe jetpacks can help us bypass the crumbling bridges.
The infrastructure function is generally considered to be one of least controversial. Budgeting, however, is one the most fundamental functions of Congress. Biden’s long-awaited bipartisan bill’s shambolic fate is yet another reminder of the fact that federal government is far too inept to address these basics. We should all be looking at ways we can help the state avoid dysfunction, given the limited chances of improving our current system.