Now It’s Biden’s Turn to Schedule Infrastructure Week

With the American Rescue Plan signed into law, President Joe Biden appears ready to pivot to his next big idea: a recovery plan focused on infrastructure. And while the perennial concern about how to pay for it is already rising on Capitol Hill, members of Congress might want to worry a bit less about the how a bit more about the what and why.

Under President Barack Obama, for example, the federal government invested significantly in new streetcars, which now exist in many U.S. cities. These modern trolleys look cool. And because they don’t require tunnels, viaducts or other grade separation, they are relatively easy to build. But in virtually every case, Obama-era streetcar lines got built by foregoing dedicated lanes. This avoided offending politically influential car owners while still allowing mayors to attend ribbon-cuttings and the Transportation secretary to tout the jobs created by all the new made-in-America trolley tracks.

Unfortunately, when you make a streetcar run in mixed traffic, all you’ve really created is an expensive bus. Except unlike a bus, a streetcar can’t go around obstacles. So as an actual transportation service, a streetcar is an inferior product to the humble bus, and drastically inferior to the cheap-but-controversial step of creating a dedicated bus lane.

The great difficulty of infrastructure projects isn’t just getting the politics right. It’s that the technical design details matter enormously, and tradeoffs are difficult to avoid.

Years ago, Washington embarked on the construction of the new Metro line, which after many delays and cost overruns will soon actually extend out to Dulles Airport. These kinds of airport connector projects are often a high priority for elites, who tend to travel a lot and thus have airport-centric views of the different cities they visit.

But these connectors tend to underperform in ridership, because linking an airport to a central business district doesn’t actually serve the most plausible market: the people who work at the airport and have to go there five days a week. According to one analysis, the AirTrain projects at JFK and Newark airports cost about $100,000 per weekday rider. At that price, the government could just buy each of them an electric car.

The real problem in Washington, however, isn’t the cost of the line to the airport. It’s that there is only so much capacity in the tunnel under the Potomac River. Adding the new trains has made it necessary to run less frequently the other trains that use the tunnel. That means this huge financial investment in transit — $5.8 billion and counting — has already resulted in worse service for some people.

Highways pose fewer technical challenges of network design, and the U.S. is consequently better at building them. But America has been building highways for a long time, which means that the highest-value routes were all built long ago. Incremental investment in highways now means marginal, sprawl-inducing extensions.

America would get more value from maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure. But federal funding flows through state transportation departments, and governors like to cut ribbons on new roads, bridges and the like. A moderate increase in the pace at which potholes get filled doesn’t make for a good photo op.

None of this is to deny that the country has genuine infrastructure needs or that an injection of federal money could help with them.

But even on stuff that everyone wants to spend more on, such as rural broadband, it’s worth asking: If states have great ideas for broadband programs, why aren’t they undertaking them already? The benefits of faster, more reliable internet are perfectly real but overwhelmingly local. Subsidized buildouts that only pass cost/benefit muster if you’re spending someone else’s money are a dubious proposition.

The big exception here is clean energy. Anything the U.S. can do to boost the production of zero-carbon electricity — whether renewable, nuclear or emerging ideas like geothermal — has significant benefits. But Congress actually passed an ambitious energy bill as recently as December, so it’s not clear exactly what’s new here.

Perhaps an amazing infrastructure proposal of some kind will emerge. Precisely because U.S. transportation spending is so troubled, there is ample room for reform, and money can be the tool that makes reform possible.

But it’s a very uncertain proposition. The genius of the American Rescue Plan is that despite its grand scale, its conceptual ambitions are modest. The overwhelming preponderance of its spending is either direct payments to households or a boost of existing federal funding to state and local entities. The federal government can start next week delivering on these promises to send Americans cash.

By contrast, promises of infrastructure — or even an “Infrastructure Week” — have a way of frustrating presidents. Obama’s administration had an ambitious high-speed rail plan, and yet America still has no high-speed rail. And one of the running jokes of Donald Trump’s presidency was how it kept scheduling, canceling and rescheduling “Infrastructure Week,” right up until it ran out of time.

Their reasons and responses differed enormously, of course. But both of Biden’s predecessors learned the hard way that, when it comes to infrastructure, actually getting something meaningful done is hard.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder of Vox and a former columnist for Slate, he is also host of "The Weeds" podcast and is the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."

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