No really, it is!
President Biden has unveiled his multi-trillion dollar proposal to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, rail systems, ports, airports and more, while also tackling inequity and climate change, and attempting to put the United States in a better competitive position with regards to China. And after his experience with the American Rescue Plan, which got no Republican votes in Congress, he appears to be prepared to pass this plan in the same manner.
I’ve been a bit of an infrastructure geek for many years, which is why just about every time I took my radio shows on the road, I’d do a story about infrastructure (did you know that Pittsburgh has nearly 450 bridges?)
When I went to London to cover Brexit in 2018, one of our reports was about a massive new rail project called Crossrail, which is adding about 15 miles of new subway tunnels right through the middle of London. The project, which is using boring machines to tunnel underground without disrupting streets above, has been plagued with delays and will cost British taxpayers at least 25 billion dollars. But when it finally opens, the results for commuters will be dramatic, cutting some journey times to a quarter of what they are now.
Imagine if instead of taking an hour and twenty minutes to take public transit from Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles, it took twenty minutes. Or if you could get from Fort Lauderdale to Miami by train in a fast fifteen. Wicker Park to the Chicago Loop in five. It would make it possible for those who can’t afford to live in expensive urban centers to get to and from work without wasting hours of the day commuting. It would make it possible for those in and outside of metropolitan areas to take fuller advantage of the economic opportunities that exist around them.
President Biden’s plan calls for 85 billion dollars to be spent modernizing transit systems and expanding access in the United States. It says “households that take public transportation to work have twice the commute time, and households of color are twice as likely to take public transportation.” As anyone who lives in a city knows, the traffic that existed before the pandemic is already coming back. And in many places, that level of road traffic is not sustainable if the United States wants to remain economically competitive.
Much of the debate in the coming days will be about the cost of upgrading America’s infrastructure. And, to be sure, it will be high. President Biden is proposing tax increases on the wealthy and corporations and it is estimated that it’ll take nearly twice as long to recoup the money through taxation as it will to spend it. The question that should also be asked, however, is what it would cost to leave US infrastructure alone.
Even economist Larry Summers, who raised concerns about US spending on COVID relief, believes now is the time to make large investments in infrastructure. “Investing in these areas would have great return,” he said, “including social benefits, especially with costs as low as they are.”
During my college years in Boston, the city was wrapping up the Big Dig, a huge project to put highways that snaked through the downtown core underground. As is the Boston tradition, there were a lot of complaints about the construction, the cost and the time it was taking. But ask anyone today whether it was worth it, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who says “no.” It has positioned Boston’s downtown for a rebirth, and connected isolated neighborhoods, including the new economic powerhouse known as the Seaport, to the rest of the city.
It’s a small example of the difference infrastructure investments can make. The Big Dig ended up costing about 22 billion dollars. President Biden’s plan, in total, would be more than 100 times the size. The Big Dig was, in the grand scheme, a tiny adjustment to part of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System — a system to which President Biden is already comparing his infrastructure plan.