Infrastructure: Key provisions and mandates that could yield poisonous fruit in the future

There’s a pilot program to track every mile and tax you for the privilege, a mandate to detect drunk driving and presumably stop your car, perhaps lock you up, a billion for “racist” infrastructure and other equity carve outs.  This is infrastructure according to Congress and the President.  There’s no vision, no plan, just dollars with no sense and a lot of mandates.

In some better world, I might support government investment in infrastructure and other public works projects.  There was a time, not too long ago in the grand sweep of history, when the government did fund major, revolutionary projects that benefited the entire country.  The transcontinental railroad, for example, was a truly epic achievement, laying 1,911 miles of track to connect the east and west coast in just six years, between 1863 and 1869.  That two of those years were right in the thick of the Civil War makes it even more remarkable.  The interstate highway system is another. The Federal government first started building roads under acts passed in 1916, 1921, and 1926, but the effort came to fruition under President Dwight D. Eisenhower with passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.  For the cost of approximately $114 billion (about $530 billion today), the government built 40,000 miles of roads from coast-to-coast.  Similar to the transcontinental railroad a century earlier, these interstate highways connected the country like never before.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible for me to believe today’s Federal government is capable of accomplishing anything on that scale at anything remotely resembling that price point.  The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last week has a price tag of $1.2 trillion and yet, in and of itself, it doesn’t contain the details of a single major project.  There is nothing resembling an overarching vision or objective, save to spray money around, lots of it.  There’s an old expression, do one thing, but do it well.  This bill certainly doesn’t come close to that standard.  Instead, there’s $110 billion for roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects.  Some $40 billion to repair, replace, or rehabilitate bridges.  $16 billion for major projects too large or complex for regular funding programs.  $11 billion for transportation safety.  $1 billion to reconnect communities.  $39 billion for public transit; $66 billion for passenger and freight rail; $12 billion for intercity rail service and high speed rail.  $65 billion for broadband and plans to help lower income residents pay for service.  $17 billion for ports.  $25 billion for airports.  $7.5 billion for zero or low emission buses and ferries.  $7.5 billion for a nationwide network of plugin electric vehicles.  $65 billion for the electric grid.  $55 billion for water infrastructure.  $50 billion for making both systems more resilient.  $21 billion to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaim abandoned mines, and cap older gas wells.

Rarely, if ever, does the bill actually describe how this money will be spent or what will be accomplished in any detail.  In other words, it’s just dollars without any sense.  Alas, this is only part of the problem, perhaps the least troubling part.  Hidden within are several provisions that have received very little coverage, but could well bear poisonous fruit in the future.  For example, one provision declares that “The Secretary shall establish a program to test the feasibility of a road usage fee and other user-based alternative revenue mechanisms.”  This will be accomplished through a voluntary “pilot program” where participants would agree to have the government record their actual miles driven, presumably through some tracking device installed in their car.  Taxes, estimated at $.08 per mile, would then be assessed based on the miles driven.  The goal would be to “restore and maintain the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund” and “improve and maintain the surface transportation system.”  The only problem;  The Highway Trust Fund is already paid for with an $.183 per gallon gas tax, $.243 on diesel.  Federal spending on highways and roads regularly comes close to $100 billion per year.  Why propose a new pilot program for a new tax when you already have an existing tax that raises billions?

Perhaps needless to say, the media isn’t remotely concerned about this development, dutifully fact-checking anyone who claims this pilot program is actually a new tax.  On September 28, former Trump speechwriter, Kyle Hooten wrote in an Instagram post, “Biden’s new driving tax is expected to cost you about 8 cents/mile. Average person drives 15k miles/year. Get ready to pay an extra $1,200 a year (or about 1 month’s rent).”  USA Today actually reported that the post received a stunning 940 (yes, less than a thousand) re-posts in two days!  Another Facebook user made similar claims, “You guys tired of your boy yet?  Now were (sic) going to have to pay to drive to work. Then pay to drive home.”  This, apparently, was enough to force the media to spring into action to defend truth and justice.  USA Today itself declared, “As other independent fact-checking organizations have noted, the legislation includes a voluntary pilot program to study the viability of a per-mile user fee to improve roads and maintain the Highway Trust Fund.”  They quoted Joshua Sewell, a senior analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, “There is no new vehicle tax in the infrastructure bill.”  This is technically true.  There is no official tax yet.  There’s only a pilot program and the beginnings of a plan for one that has the Federal government tracking your every mile.  Why is that and why is the media not the slightest bit concerned?

Nor is this the only instance of potential government intrusion in our driving habits contained in the supposed infrastructure bill.  There’s also a mandate for auto manufacturers to include anti-drunk driving technology in cars by 2026, barely 4 years away.  The plan is for the Department of Transportation to identify the best solution to “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.” Presumably the car would either stop or not start should it detect an impaired driver, but no one knows for sure because the technology doesn’t exist yet and the final approach is entirely unclear.  Taking a breathalyzer before starting your car is intrusive and unacceptable even according to the “passive monitoring” clause of the legislation.  Conceivably, alcohol could be detected in the air within the car, but that wouldn’t distinguish between the driver and the passenger, effectively banning designated drivers.  Sensors on the car could detect bad driving, but then what?  People can swerve or make a mistake without being drunk.  Is your car going to stop every time you change a radio station?  Of course, what the government will do with his information also remains to be seen.  Are they going to send you an automated fine?  Lock you up outright?  Similar “nanny state” provisions for automobiles under the guise of safety include rear seat reminders for children accidently left behind in car seats, plus mandatory emergency braking and lane departure warnings. These will surely increase the cost of cars, even as some of this technology remains unreliable and not all that successful.

There are also, of course, the requisite peons to equity sprinkled throughout the bill, grants that will be provided to minority-owned businesses above all others included in the clean energy section to generate jobs lost by closing coal mines and coal-fired plants, and the improvement of traffic patterns in cities.  There’s $1 billion to reconnect communities that were separated by road construction, resulting in the odd scene of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s having to explain how a bridge can be designed for a racist purpose.  Incredibly, Secretary Buttigieg began by claiming he was surprised there wasn’t broad agreement that roads themselves are racist.  “I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a White and a Black neighborhood, or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, or that would’ve been, in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” he said during a White House briefing earlier this week.

The mainstream media quickly rallied to defend the statement. Glenn Kessler, resident “fact checker” at The Washington Post tweeted that Secretary Buttigieg was referencing  Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Power Broker.  Fellow Post correspondent, Phillip Bump said, “And this is why it’s useful to talk about historical examples of institutionalized racism,” claiming the remark “served as an opportunity not only to elevate the specific story to which he was referring but the utility of educating Americans about a complicated history of systemic racism.”  Unfortunately for them both, Mr. Kessler was forced to quickly backtrack.  “Well, our knee jerked,” he wrote, while explaining that a professor of history at Case Western University, Peter Shulman, told him that Caro’s book had been “largely debunked.”  Mr. Kessler dug “a little bit deeper” and discovered that the only source for the claim had died two years before the book was even published and most experts highly doubt it given the history of the man mostly responsible for New York City infrastructure design, Robert Moses.  “There has been some revisionism and Moses’s achievements are now viewed in a better light. In particular, the anecdote about the parkway bridges has been increasingly questioned, along with other details in Caro’s book,” Kessler wrote.  “Caro is wrong,” a separate historian emailed him while noting anyone could access the beach with ease. 

Why a supposedly independent news organization’s “knee jerked” to defend an obviously dubious claim is not explained, though the episode does reveal that the default media position is that everything is racist all the time, even inanimate objects.  Nor is it explained why any of this is in the infrastructure bill in the first place, especially after the courts have already struck down similar provisions that dole out government dollars based on racial preferences.  If that’s your thing, however, you can expect a lot more of it if the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill passes later this month.  The current version is loaded with programs that will only benefit minorities.  $1 billion to Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities for housing “needs.” $500 million for schools of medicine who serve minorities.  $112 million for teacher prep programs at minority colleges and institutions.  $100 million to address low diversity among teachers and other professionals.  $75 million for culturally appropriate care management and services for minority or transgender seniors.  $75 million to study maternal health for minorities. $50 million to study minority maternal mortality.  $50 million for minority substance abuse.  $75 million for minority research grants. There’s even something for “tree equity,” and this is just the beginning.  The plan to divvy us up by race is only in the early stages and will only get worse.

In the meantime, I hope I’m wrong, but it seems likely that the infrastructure bill’s toxic combination of a lack of vision, specific outcomes, ridiculous mandates, and slant towards equity will result in another trillion wasted, gone without a trace.  After all, it was only 12 years ago that we funneled hundreds of billions to “shovel ready” projects as part of Obama’s stimulus plan.  A few years later they were laughing about how there weren’t actually any “shovel ready” projects, and to this day there’s not a single major infrastructure project anyone can point to as a result of the spending, certainly nothing on the scale of what we did once upon a time.  Now, they’re back for more already, except with even more mandates that will increase prices at best, intrude on our lives in unforeseen ways at worst, and it will never be enough.

2 thoughts on “Infrastructure: Key provisions and mandates that could yield poisonous fruit in the future”

  1. Relative to Buttigieg’s racist road policy remark, he came to Syracuse last summer to tout a community grid replacement to Interstate 81 through Syracuse because the existing highway was racist. The US edition of the Guardian summarized the argument that the road deliberately went through a black neighborhood in “The NY Highway That Racism Built” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/21/syracuse-new-york-highway-i81-viaduct-biden). However, I showed that once the decision was made to put the road through the city there was only one place it could have gone in “Re-building Interstate I-81 in Syracuse, NY” (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/2021/05/30/re-building-interstate-i-81-in-syracuse-ny/) I suspect that as you also pointed out that when many of the claims are checked they don’t pan out.

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    1. Yup, it’s just madness. I have no doubt that they put these roads in poor communities. They aren’t putting a shopping mall in the midlde of the Hollywood Hills either. To claim that the design is intentionally racist though, as if minorities ride on buses taller than whites, and bridges are made to reflect that is insane!

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