“What forces, then, did drive the cost escalation? One key finding, the authors say, is that if a given community is wealthier, the state will wind up spending more to build a given mile of interstate. This effect increased over time.
To some extent, correlations of this sort might manifest themselves even if affluent neighborhoods do not exert any particular clout. Amenities that attract well-off residents, such as water views, may be the same ones highway builders take pains to avoid spoiling; municipalities may have reason to press for features such as noise barriers in places where property tax collections are high and officials have an incentive to keep property values from falling, and so forth.
Another possibility, however, is that wealthier persons are simply “more effective at voicing their interests in the political process.” The highway route gets diverted in a way that protects their amenity, but spoils some equally valued amenity in a less affluent neighborhood. The unwelcome extension is completed far behind schedule, with concomitant expense, because opponents have been skillful at working the system by stretching out hearings and reviews and then suing.”
“Brooks and Liscow pinpoint the early 1970s as the inflection point for increased spending on highway projects. What was happening around that time? The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires environmental impact review for federally funded projects, was passed in 1970. California passed its considerably more stringent CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) the same year, and it was signed by none other than Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1972 and 1973, Congress added additional federal laws that provided key leverage in fighting construction projects on the basis of loss of species habitat and wetlands. The U.S. Supreme Court helped out with the 1971 case of Citizens To Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, which multiplied the chances to go to court over development by curtailing judges’ deference to agency decision making. All of these laws and decisions have made it much easier for citizens to contest infrastructure projects, driving up their cost and delaying their implementation and completion.
Among Brooks and Liscow’s most interesting findings is this: The relationship between local resident income and project expense took off just as these changes in law were coming online. Before 1970, the two were related modestly enough that the correlation failed to score as statistically significant. It then proceeded to quintuple.”
“the new “citizen voice” laws brought some authentic benefits; objectors could bring genuinely useful information to the highway planners about ways to avoid environmental harm.”
“Certainly, the need for infrastructure spending over and beyond what the federal government, states and localities already spend is oversold.
Infrastructure is obviously important, and building or repairing it can be a good investment, depending on the particulars. But enormous catch-all Washington infrastructure bills aren’t well suited to discerning, nonpoliticized investment decisions, and the endlessly repeated cliche about our “crumbling” infrastructure doesn’t hold up.
A recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research noted, “Over the past generation, the condition of the interstate highway network improved consistently, its extent increased modestly, and traffic about doubled. Over about the same time period, the condition of bridges remained about the same, the number of bridges increased slowly, and bridge traffic increased modestly. The stock of public transit motor buses is younger than it was a generation ago and about 30% larger, although ridership has been about constant.”
Shooting money out of a bazooka is not self-evidently what the state of America’s infrastructure calls for. But when the only tool you have is huge reconciliation spending bills, everything looks like a crisis urgently requiring more profligacy.
The bills are also a substitute for passing significant nonspending policy changes, which is seemingly beyond Biden’s power. Unlike FDR, Biden has narrow and tenuous congressional majorities. He’s not getting HR1, gun control, a higher minimum wage, or immigration reform, and perhaps couldn’t even if Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster.
What he can do, which FDR and LBJ never could, is reach for the word “trillion” as much as possible.”
“Liberals are wary that the GOP may be trying to prolong infrastructure talks for weeks or even months, potentially setting back Democrats’ ambitious agenda as Biden goes back and forth with the opposition party over how big to go and when. But several prominent progressives also want to keep giving Biden room to try with Republicans — up to a still-undetermined point.
At the moment, the two sides seem very far apart: Biden’s initial infrastructure spending pitch was more than $2 trillion, with a second part of the plan still in development. And several Democrats said Monday they seriously doubt that discussions with the GOP will produce anything at all.
Republicans have not indicated they would be willing to spend anything more than $800 billion — a paltry sum for Democrats — and even that might be a stretch. And while liberals in Congress aren’t yet asking Biden to ditch the talks altogether, they are clearly signaling that his patience, like theirs, should be finite.”
“even a quite generous accounting still suggests that only a little more than half of the bill is targeted at anything that meets the definition of infrastructure, and that includes projects like $111 billion for drinking water and $328 billion for upgrading military health facilities and other federal buildings. As Politico notes, those sorts of projects involve some amount of physical building and construction but have never been previously categorized as infrastructure.
The plan also includes a lot of spending on stuff that doesn’t even remotely count as infrastructure. For example, the proposal includes about $590 billion for vaguely defined job training, research and development, and industrial policy, as well as another $400 billion for expanding and supporting home health care. That’s about $1 trillion in non-infrastructure spending in a supposed infrastructure bill.”
“even if you just confine your analysis to the parts of the bill that are actually infrastructure, what you find is that it’s chock-full of provisions that almost seem intentionally designed to make big infrastructure projects much slower to complete and much more expensive.
As Reason’s Christian Britschgi wrote, the plan includes “Buy American” and prevailing wage provisions that would drive up the already-high costs of infrastructure and funnel a lot of money to the unions that support Biden, and that Biden has repeatedly said he supports. To the extent that American infrastructure has problems, it’s partly because of comparatively high construction costs that make projects more difficult to build. Instead of attempting to solve that problem, Biden’s infrastructure plan would make it worse.”
“at its heart, it’s not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a payoff plan for Biden’s labor allies. And that helps explain the non-infrastructure parts of the plan too. The $400 billion for home health care would heavily benefit the Service Employees International Union.”