Who Will Pay for the Roads?

“For decades, federal highway spending was covered completely by federal gas tax revenue. Fuel taxes are not exactly a user fee, but they do at least charge people who drive for the roads they drive on.

An even more market-oriented solution would involve giving private companies a larger role in building and maintaining highways and city streets while shifting the costs of those projects onto motorists, truckers, and other road users through tolls.

Since 2008, however, a gap between gas tax revenue and mounting federal transportation spending has required a $157 billion infusion from the general fund. Even before the 2021 infrastructure bill was passed, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting that the gap would grow.

The infrastructure package did include a few modest reforms. It created a pilot program to study a mileage-based user fee, and it expanded private activity bonds, which help private companies raise capital for infrastructure projects. But the overall trend is toward more freeloading freeways.”

Why Can’t We Build Anything?

“it’s not true that Washington is actually “sending 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. In November, the infrastructure bill did indeed authorize over a trillion in spending. But before all of that money can actually head out the door, there needs to be an appropriations bill in place”

“The U.S. is the sixth-most expensive country in the world to build rapid-rail transit infrastructure like the New York City subway or the Washington, D.C., metro system.
Part of the reason is just plain waste and corruption. The federal infrastructure bill has created massive incentives for rent-seeking while ballooning the municipal lobbying sector. 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.

More than 1,000 municipal entities spent just shy of $50 million on federal lobbyists in the second half of 2021 as the infrastructure bill was finalized and passed, according to data tracked by OpenSecrets. That’s about 7 percent higher than the $46.7 million that municipal entities spent in the same period of 2020, which was hardly a dry spell given the federal pandemic spending that was already underway. That number likely underestimates the real demand, since it doesn’t capture contracts signed right at the end of the year.

In theory, no lobbyist is needed to tap into the new infrastructure money. 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!

Despite all this, there’s no reason to think the U.S. is notably worse on these measures than other developed nations. Likewise, while some of the cost is inputs, such as material and labor, they don’t explain the disparity fully. A recent study of the interstate highway system from George Washington University professor Leah Brooks and Yale University professor Zachary Liscow suggests that the X-factor is “citizen voice,” which can take the form of legitimate opposition to eminent domain, or which might be less charitably described as “not in my backyard” obstructionism and environmental regulatory foot dragging.”

Prisons, Water Infrastructure And Broadband: Where States Are Spending Their Pandemic Relief Funding

“combined with previous coronavirus response bills and spending packages, the federal government has now spent almost $5 trillion addressing the pandemic”

“It’s not clear yet where all this money will go — states have an enormous amount of leeway as to how they’ll spend it and until 2026 to do so. (In total, $155 billion went out to states in 2021, with the rest due to be distributed later this year.) Most states have used the windfall of cash to address the budget problems caused by the economic downturn following the pandemic and to address the inequities thrown into sharp relief during the past two years. But while there are broad commonalities in how states have spent the money, it’s also true that how relief from the pandemic is defined varies widely — not necessarily across partisan lines but in ways that are still shaped by local conditions and ideology.”

“Almost every state that has allocated money so far has spent some on broadband, water and sewer infrastructure”

“Infrastructure has also been a big priority for states like Florida, which is spending money on highways and other transportation projects that had been long-planned but unfinished. Lazere said some of the need for infrastructure goes all the way back to the Great Recession, which began in 2007, and the long, slow recovery that followed. “These were areas of need that had not been addressed, [for which] there hadn’t been a dedicated state or federal funding source, so the rescue plan gave them the opportunity to tackle these problems that had been around for a long time,” he said.
Additionally, because the funds are a large, one-time payment, with no expectation that they’ll continue into the future, it encourages spending on infrastructure.

“It really starts with states doing that analysis, to be able to know what’s affordable over the long-term and what’s not,” said Josh Goodman, who is part of The Pew Charitable Trusts’s state fiscal health project.”

“In Alabama, $400 million will be used for building two new prisons.”

“the state has been under a court order to improve mental health care in its prisons since 2017, and advocates of the new law say using the recovery funds to build a new prison will address those problems, as well as overcrowding and inadequate staffing. They also say the new facilities will improve the overall health care and mental health care available to incarcerated individuals.”

“In more liberal states and localities, lawmakers are pursuing new financial assistance programs for local families. One idea that has picked up steam is funding guaranteed income pilot programs, with eligible residents receiving between $500 and $1,000 in cash assistance monthly. Support for these programs has been growing across the ideological spectrum, especially in the last few years.”

3G must die so 5G can live

“It’s time to say goodbye to 3G, the wireless technology that gave our phones near-instantaneous access to the web and helped make everything from the Apple App Store to Uber an everyday part of our lives. More than two decades after its launch, wireless service providers are shutting down 3G to clear the way for its faster and flashier successor: 5G.
The expansion of 5G is welcome news for the growing number of people with 5G-enabled devices, and it could be a critical step toward more advanced technologies, like self-driving cars and virtual reality. But the 3G shutdown will also disable an entire generation of tech: everything from 3G phones to car crash notification systems. For the people who rely on these devices, this transition will cut off a cellular network they’ve depended on for years, and in some cases, disconnect crucial safety equipment.

“The number of 3G devices has been decreasing steadily,” Tommaso Melodia, the director of Northeastern’s Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, told Recode. “Now it’s at the point where carriers are starting to say, ‘It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to continue to use these precious frequency channels for 3G. Let’s turn it off.’”

Ideally, wireless providers could keep both 3G and 5G networks up and running, but the physics of the radio spectrum that cellular technology relies on means that companies have to make a choice. The radio spectrum includes a wide range of frequencies, which are used to connect everything from AM/FM radios to wifi networks, and is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Because there are a limited number of frequencies the agency sets aside for cellular service, wireless providers have to divide up the spectrum that they’re allocated to run multiple networks, including their 3G, 4G, 5G, and eventually 6G, services.”

Biden’s Regulatory Wish List Will Make Infrastructure Projects More Expensive

“It would be terrific if the Biden administration intended to truly “update and modernize” the Davis-Bacon Act, namely by hollowing it out and allowing workers to truly compete for federal construction contracts in a field where wages are not preemptively set, regardless of the applicant’s experience. After passing an infrastructure bill that was considerably smaller than originally proposed, any opportunities to cut costs should be obvious winners. Unfortunately, despite the new rule’s lack of specificity, Biden’s previous rhetoric on the law is discouraging.

“When President Obama put Vice President Biden in charge of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Biden made sure that Davis-Bacon Act and Service Contract Act standards were strictly enforced, requiring that the prevailing wage be paid to construction workers and service workers on all projects funded by ARRA,” noted Biden’s campaign website. “As president, Biden will build on this success by ensuring that every federal investment in infrastructure and transportation projects or service jobs is covered by prevailing wage protections.”

In “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” signed a week after he took office, Biden stipulated that “agencies shall, consistent with applicable law, apply and enforce the Davis-Bacon Act and prevailing wage and benefit requirements.” And in his February remarks to labor leaders regarding his plans for a future infrastructure spending bill, Biden indicated that he expected the legislation to create “jobs—good-paying jobs, Davis-Bacon and prevailing wage jobs.”

From Biden’s statements on the subject, it’s clear that any of his proposed “updates” to the Davis-Bacon Act would not make it easier to hire contractors at market rates.”

The downside to Biden’s electric vehicle charging plan

“to build 500,000 chargers with half the budget, the Biden administration will have to opt for slower chargers. (The faster the charger, the more expensive it is to install.) The Biden administration’s plan, which draws on funds from the recently passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, prioritizes chargers that take hours to fully charge an electric car — a potentially hard sell for Americans who are used to filling gas tanks from empty to full in minutes. And while more chargers are great, the plan is an indicator of just how watered-down Biden’s energy policies have become over the last year. Democrats still haven’t been able to agree on a clean energy plan, and without one in place, those EV chargers could just end up getting their energy from fossil fuel sources.”

“There are currently three different types, or levels, of electric vehicle chargers. Level 1 chargers plug into a regular 120-volt power outlet and deliver power to electric cars at a glacial three to five miles of range per hour. At that rate, it would take a couple of days for most cars to go from empty to fully charge. Level 2 chargers convert the 120-volt connection to about 240 volts, charging cars around 10 times faster than Level 1 chargers and bringing a battery to full within a few hours. Level 3 chargers, also called DC fast chargers, are the fastest of the lot. They add anywhere from three to 20 miles of range per minute.That means your car can be about 80 percent charged in the time it takes you to use the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee at a rest stop.”

“industry experts say, we don’t really need every charger to be a fast charger — which is why the Biden administration’s charging framework just might work.
“There’s a temptation to recreate the gas station model, where we say, ‘Oh I’m low on fuel, I need to go fill up now and be on my way in five minutes,’” Joe Britton, executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association, told Recode. “That would be a mistake.” (Just don’t tell Harris, who said charging the Volt was “just like filling up your car with gas.”)

Instead, Britton said, it’s important to consider how most people actually use their cars on a regular day. Most folks aren’t driving hundreds of miles each day; they’re driving between home and work or running errands around town. For those folks, Level 2 chargers would work just fine. They can charge their cars at home, drive to a grocery store, plug in at the parking lot, and drive back home with a full battery. So while the Biden plan does include strategically installing faster chargers along highways and in rural areas, the focus on building lots of Level 2 chargers in local communities is a way to stretch that $7.5 billion a long way.”

“Despite being home to EV pioneers like Tesla and GM, the US lags far behind Europe and China in electric vehicle sales. The majority of American EV sales are also concentrated in major metropolitan areas, with nearly half of all EV sales in California alone.”

“Studies have shown that electric cars drawing power from coal-heavy grids can actually be worse for the climate than hybrids. And so far, the president’s attempts to clean up the grid have been repeatedly thwarted by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who single-handedly gutted a proposal to replace coal- and gas-powered plants with solar, wind, and nuclear energy. Most of the energy policy that remains in Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill revolves around tax credits for clean energy, with few penalties for continued pollution-heavy energy production.”

No Mass Transit Grants for California, Biden Administration Rules

“the U.S. Department of Labor has denied California $12 billion in transit funding, including grants from the recently signed infrastructure bill. The reason? A 1964 federal law requires the labor department to certify that the state agencies seeking any mass-transit grants are “protecting the interests of any affected employees,” The Fresno Bee reported.

So, the Biden administration is claiming that California—the state that provides its public employees with unparalleled pay and pension benefits, and provides collective-bargaining rights unheard of anywhere else—is being mean to its “affected” public employees because the state passed a 2013 law, authored by Democrats, that infinitesimally reined in pension benefits.

As SFist summarized, “Biden is withholding giant amounts of federal money from California public transit because the state’s public-employee pension system is apparently not paying people enough.””

The $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill Spends a Lot More Money on the Same Old Highway Programs

“The $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law..dumps a lot of new money into existing highway programs to be spent by state departments of transportation (DOTs).
The price tag of the bill—which includes $550 billion in new spending, $110 billion of which is earmarked for highways and bridges”

“by mostly topping off existing programs, it will largely maintain a status quo where some states deploy their highway dollars effectively, while others continue to set them on fire in the hopes that that will produce better roads.”

“That would include places like New Jersey, which ranked last in a report on state highway performance released by the Reason Foundation today.

The Garden State, per the report, spent $1,136,255 per mile of state-controlled road in 2019 while also having some of the worst urban congestion and pavement conditions in the country.

That’s well above more cost-effective states like Virginia. It managed to spend only $34,969 per mile of state-controlled roads while also having above average pavement quality and slightly worse-than-average congestion. (Virginia ranked second overall in the Reason highway report, right behind North Dakota.)”

“Feigenbaum says part of New Jersey’s high expenditures can be chalked up to the high design quality of its highways, which have generally wider lanes and straighter curves in order to improve safety. (It ranks fourth in the Reason report in terms of overall fatality rate). But he also says a lot can also be explained by a cronyist state DOT that’s dominated by political appointees.

A state like Virginia has been able to keep up road quality while keeping overall road spending in line by having a more professionally run DOT, he says. It also makes heavy use of public-private partnerships, whereby private companies put in their own capital to rebuild or expand highways in return for being able to charge tolls on the lanes that they build, says Feigenbaum.

In keeping with its “spend more on the same old programs” nature, Biden’s new infrastructure bill does remarkably little to advance public-private partnerships or expand the interstate tolling that supports them.

The infrastructure bill does increase the amount of private activity bonds (tax-exempt bonds issued by a private company to fund an infrastructure project) that can be issued from $15 billion to $30 billion. It also reauthorizes a handful of limited programs that allow states to use tolls to reduce congestion or rebuild bridges. But it leaves in place a general prohibition on tolling interstate highways.

The overall trend in highway spending over the past decade has been higher spending and marginally improved roadway quality, says Feigenbaum, with some states standing out for either their innovations or their wastefulness.

The new infrastructure bill will likely produce more of the same.”

The bipartisan infrastructure law is both historic and not nearly enough

“About $550 billion of the $1.2 trillion law is new spending, which will be spread out over five years. The remaining $650 billion in the bill would have been allocated for existing transportation and highway programs under previously planned funding.
The new money in the bill will go toward a wide range of projects, including road repairs, high-speed internet services, and investments in electric buses. Notably, the infrastructure bill was backed by both Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans, and was the culmination of years long attempts to advance infrastructure legislation that’s spanned presidential administrations.

While it’s a landmark investment, the legislation only authorizes a fraction of the funding required to tackle the entirety of the US’s infrastructural challenges. Across specific categories of the bill, including lead water pipe replacement and broadband, it’s likely to take much more than what’s already been allocated to fully solve issues of access, safety, and equity. The bill includes $15 billion specifically for addressing lead pipes, for instance, while experts believe it will take $60 billion to actually replace every lead pipe in America.

Still, the passage of this bill — which contains critical funding that the country has needed for decades — is significant, and an important down payment for future investments.”

States have the power to make or break the infrastructure law

“Now that President Joe Biden has signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the bipartisan infrastructure framework, or BIF) into law, the federal government faces a new challenge: getting the funds out to states and cities.

In the coming months — and years — federal agencies will distribute billions of dollars for everything from bridge repairs to public transit expansions to bike paths. Most of this money will go directly to state governments, which will have significant discretion over which projects they’d like to fund.”