By Tom Baxter
Who would have thought that when the states were graded on the sturdiness of their infrastructure, Georgia would be at the head of the class? Unfortunately, that’s more a commentary on the overall rickety condition of the nation’s infrastructure than on anything we’ve done right.
The Infrastructure Report Card released last week by the White House gives Georgia and Utah a C+ for the condition of their roads, bridges, drinking water, broadband and other measures of infrastructure. That mediocre grade was just a smidge better than the other states.
The report card is part of the Biden administration’s rollout of the American Jobs Plan. The proposal to spend $2.7 trillion has a number of lofty goals in addition to repairing the nation’s potholes and leaky pipes, including making the country more competitive with China and facing up to the climate crisis. But it’s called a “jobs plan,” not an “infrastructure plan,” for a reason. Biden is calculating that the best political selling point for this huge expenditure is the argument that it would generate millions of good jobs.
“(T)his is no time to build back to the way things were,” the White House said in a statement released last week. “This is the moment to re-imagine and rebuild a new economy.”
According to a fact sheet on the report card, Georgia has 374 bridges and 2,260 miles of highway in poor condition, and the average driver pays an extra $375 dollars in yearly costs due to driving on roads that need repairing. If that’s true, you wonder how the Department of Transportation can afford to spend $62.5 million on “vegetative management projects,” that is, clear-cutting trees along vast stretches of highway.
Over the next 20 years, the report says, the state will need $12.5 billion in additional funding to maintain its drinking water infrastructure. Referencing the plan’s proposals to make the country more resilient to extreme weather, the fact sheet reports that between 2010 and 2020, 46 extreme weather events cost the state up to $20 billion in damages.
One of the most troubling statistics cited in the fact sheet is that 44 percent of Georgians live in a child-care desert, where there aren’t as many child-care facilities as there are working mothers. This cripples a crucial segment of the 21st Century economy before they’re even able to pull out of their driveways and drive down our bumpy roads.
This gets to one of the trickiest parts of this ambitious proposal. Those parts of the bill that don’t fit into the traditional description of infrastructure, like broadband and child care, are going to be a much harder sale than traditional asphalt and concrete infrastructure.
Much of the nation’s “old” infrastructure truly is in serious need of repair, but it’s the “new” infrastructure that is most vital, if we really want to “reimagine and rebuild” the economy. And it’s in the “old” infrastructure, by the way, where graft and self-dealing have had time to put down their deepest roots.
Unlike similar projects in the past, the White House said last week, this one will put a priority on addressing “long-standing and persistent racial injustice.” There has been a preview of what this could mean in the first major action taken by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The Federal Highway Administration has asked the Texas Department of Transportation to suspend work on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, a highway-widening project that displace more than a thousand residences and hundreds of businesses, schools and churches in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods. This action, though not final, represents a sharp break with the way the feds have approached such projects in the past.
Laden as it may be with ideological debating points, this doesn’t look like it’s shaping up to be another of the all-or-nothing standoffs which have marked congressional politics in recent years. The Republicans have floated a proposal which is about a third of what the administration wants, but that’s already a lot more than they were talking about before.
With broad public support for some kind of plan, Republicans and Democrats will likely meet somewhere in the middle, or the Democrats will settle for a smaller plan that will pass easily and push for the rest without Republican support. The real question is whether the dollars will be spent wisely enough to achieve the ambitious goals the administration has set.