At long last, a federal infrastructure bill may be coming. And it’s not quite as terrible as it seemed it would be six months ago.
The Senate moved closer to passing a $1 trillion infrastructure package Saturday after lawmakers from both parties came together and voted to clear a key procedural hurdle, but the action soon stalled out as opponents tried to slow the rush to approve one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities. [Reuters]
The roughly $1 trillion bill includes about $550 billion in new spending over the next decade, which is a lot of money but far smaller than the $2.3 trillion plan the Biden Administration was promoting last spring. That plan famously defined essentially everything as “infrastructure” as long as a Democratic apparatchik got paid. Home care workers were infrastructure, art was infrastructure, and literally demolishing existing roads for being racist was infrastructure too.
Many Republicans will oppose the bill, for expanding the deficit or empowering federal agencies. But that opposition only captures part of the problem. The tragedy of the infrastructure bill is that it exposes how far America has fallen in its ability to even imagine achieving greatness.
In his remarks pushing the bill forward, President Biden compared the infrastructure bill to the Transcontinental Railroad and the Interstate Highway System. But making that direct comparison only drives home how feeble America’s ambitions have become as its decay worsens. Both of those projects were not merely large but dramatic undertakings, which radically remade the American life, turned a vast continent into an interconnected whole, and of course improved life substantially for ordinary people.
Nothing in this bill will do that. Here’s a couple examples of what this new infrastructure bill will buy you, the American taxpayer, and what a similar amount of money might buy you in America’s foremost rival, the People’s Republic of China.
In China, officials are currently investing $73.5 billion into the Greater Bay Area transportation network in the Pearl River Delta region. The Pearl River Delta contains the most populous megacity on Earth. It’s home to more than 70 million people distributed among massive urban cores like Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. To connect each part of this mammoth conurbation, Beijing’s plan is to put down almost 3,000 miles of rail. The goal: A two-hour transit time to get from one part of the megacity to any other part, and three hours to reach neighboring provincial capitals via high speed rail. The goal is to have the whole project finished by 2035.
In the new infrastructure bill, America is putting nearly as much money, more than $60 billion, to fund Amtrak. And what exactly will it buy? Umm… we’ll get back to you on that.
Americans have long been envious of the clean, efficient, and speedy trains that are available even in middle-income countries abroad. For years, progressives in particular have fantasized, often to an excessive degree, about blanketing America with its own high speed rail network.
This bill doesn’t even pretend to aspire to that. Instead, it simply devotes tens of billions to modestly improving Amtrak. A few new routes (normal speed) may be added in the Northeast, but mostly it will help keep more trains in service and help address a significant backlog of basic maintenance. In some countries, $11 billion might buy three hundred miles of high-speed rail; in America, it might (might) pay for one tunnel under the Hudson River. The bill rewrites Amtrak’s mandate so that instead of minimizing subsidies from the federal government, it is asked to “maximize the benefits of Federal investments.” Instead of “reducing management costs,” Amtrak will be tasked with “controlling or reducing management and operating costs.” This could be an invitation to a less feeble vision of train service… or it could be an open door to hiking manager salaries and benefits in return for nothing. Revolver leaves it to its readers to judge which outcome is more likely to occur.
But hey, maybe at least the food will be better?
The bill also addresses the quality of Amtrak’s catering. “Reducing losses on food service” is the current goal but that may be changed to “offering food service that meets the needs of its customers.”
Amtrak has been steadily improving its onboard dining experience following service cuts under former CEO Richard Anderson. [Business Insider]
We’ll believe that when we see it.
Perhaps the most dispiriting thing about this plan is that it does certainly seem to be for the best. A limited plan to make Amtrak more punctual, more widespread, and more pleasant is the kind of plan the decaying U.S. can still hope to achieve. We have ample evidence already of what happens when America makes ambitious plans involving trains.
In 2008, California voters approved a $10 billion bond to begin building a high speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Supporters said the final product would be finished by 2022, with extensions to San Diego and Sacramento. Final cost: $33 billion.
You can probably guess how that went. In 2020, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) updated its cost projection to more than $80 billion, with a high-end outcome of $98 billion! For those wondering, that’s $2,480 for every man, woman, and child in California.
Of course, that’s the final cost if the actual train is built. 2022 is almost here. Where is it? Right now, Gavin Newsom’s government is struggling to get Democrats to commit the $4 billion necessary to finish the first 119-mile segment connecting Madera and Shafter (combined population: 85,000). A train between San Jose and Bakersfield (still 200 miles short of an actual S.F.-L.A. line) might be finished by 2029. Might be.
Let’s go back to China again for another ongoing project. Thorium power has been a promising but just-out-of-reach technology for nuclear energy going back decades. But thorium power is finally happening, and it’s China that is leading the way. A $3.3 billion investment into building a prototype reactor is on the brink of completion out in China’s Gobi Desert.
The concept of a reactor powered by liquid salt rather than solid fuel rods has been around since the 1940s, and in the following decade the United States started an experimental programme to build a bomber fuelled by the technology. … The idea was attractive because the liquid fuel acts as its own coolant, removing the need for water, while thorium’s lower levels of radioactivity meant there is less risk of nuclear proliferation.
These early projects all failed because they could not solve problems such as pipes cracking too easily because they had become corroded by the radioactive molten salt.
But scientists learned a lot from these experiments and in recent years researchers in the field have received steady support from the Chinese government. … Another part of the appeal for China is that it has some of the world’s largest reserves of thorium, a silvery metal with weak radioactivity. By some calculations it has enough to meet the country’s energy needs for at least 20,000 years. [South China Morning Post]
With a few billion dollars’ investment into a speculative but promising technology, China may open the way forward to sustainable, cheap, and safe nuclear energy production for thousands of years.
While China’s $3 billion may help kick off a revolutionary new power technology, the current Biden infrastructure bill would spend twice that to simply prop up America’s oldest nuclear reactors, which otherwise risk going bankrupt. Why are they going bankrupt, when nuclear power is one of the cleanest and most efficient energy sources in existence? In large part because absolutely suffocating safety and regulatory requirements overwhelm the industry, causing costs to drastically rise over time even for already-built plants. Rather than a sweeping modernization of regulations, and the construction of new plants, America simply perpetuates the creaking remains of what was built decades ago.
Meanwhile, in the new infrastructure bill, $15 billion is also allocated to “carbon capture,” technology for collecting the carbon output of a traditional power plant instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere. Assuming one believes in global warming, it’s not the worst idea, but environmental groups still hate it. Some of their complaints are the usual whining from suicidal activists who will accept nothing less than the total abolition of all fossil fuels. But other objections are more reasonable: Carbon capture doesn’t work that well, it has no economic upside, and the only commercial use of the captured carbon is to improve fossil fuel extraction, negating the ostensible environmental purpose of its existence. America’s only carbon-capture operation at a coal plant, built at the cost of $1 billion, was a financial disaster that shut down last year.
So why does it get money? The outraged reaction of climate activists hints at why: Carbon capture tech is the perfect compromise for a democracy divided up between formidable special interests. It lets lawmakers, including Republicans, appear to be taking a pro-environmental action without seriously imperiling the existing fossil fuels industry. America spends billions to let lawmakers try to both have their cake and eat it too.
That is the infrastructure bill in a nutshell. Beneath the underwhelming big-ticket items is a death by a thousand cuts set of projects that, while less expensive, are either useless or ominous.
For instance, the Biden Administration has made a lot of noise about enhancing the “resilience” of communities to natural disaster or global warming or what have you. So, how does the Administration plan to achieve “resilience”? In part, by blowing $50 million on ten “Transportation Resilience and Adaptation Centers of Excellence,” which will essentially absorb millions of dollars to churn out reports and “engage” with “underserved” or “predominantly minority” communities.
$50 million for ten “Transportation Resilience and Adaptation Centers of Excellence”, which will do climate change reports and engage “disadvantaged communities”.
— Oilfield Rando (@Oilfield_Rando) August 2, 2021
Will these commissions actually make any community more “resilient” — whatever that actually means? Who knows! But $50 million can buy 100 people a $100,000 job for five years each, and if they’re working at a “transportation resilience and adaptation center of excellence” they’re probably a Democrat.
Little spendy bits pop up all over the place. There’s $75 million for Pete Buttigieg to fund any studies he wants. There’s a special commission to create a report on convincing more women to become long-haul truckers (at least the commissioners are unpaid).
And then there are the parts with ominous overtones. There is a $50 million provision in the bill to create a pilot program that will explore creating a per-mile fee system for American drivers. A $50 million pilot program would be debatable even if it were solely about generating tax revenue in a more fair way. But in the modern American regime, that would never be the only intent. Technology to track mileage by drivers would also be useful for tracking the movements of Americans generally, and a tax on mileage could easily be ramped up to try and push American drivers off the roads in the name of the environment.
What does all this mean? In short, it’s not as simple as “just spend more on infrastructure.” Infrastructure has been a popular cause on the right since Donald Trump’s presidential run began six years ago, and for good reason. If President Trump had started his first term with a massive bipartisan infrastructure project that included the Wall, rather than following GOP hack Paul Ryan’s tax cut agenda, the country would almost certainly be better off. Spending money to develop America and improve the lives of citizens is a much better use of the country’s wealth than fighting forever wars in the Hindu Kush or simply keeping half the country on the dole in one form or another.
But there needs to be a degree of realism as well: In the country America has become, it’s never as simple as just spending money on infrastructure instead of warfare and welfare. Without truly ambitious, far-reaching reforms, and a competent non-corrupt leadership class to implement them, infrastructure is either a spoils system for special interest clients, or simply an expensive effort to maintain a crumbling status quo.
This is the real tragedy of the infrastructure bill. It’s not just about waste, excessive expense, incompetence, or special interest grift, though all that is there and it is impossible to imagine a major bill without these corruptions. It’s also, at a deeper level, about the disappearance of greatness from our national spirit. Fifty-two years ago, the United States sent men to the moon. Today, America is no longer capable of a moon-landing level national project — in fact, America may literally be incapable of an actual moon landing, too. Regardless, this infrastructure bill aspires to nothing of the sort.
We see this even in the Republican resistance to the bill.
Tennesseans need roads and bridges, not billions in new taxes. pic.twitter.com/zAWra9S9UF
— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) August 7, 2021
.@tedcruz on bipartisan infrastructure bill: "The roads and bridges part of this bill […] is about 1/86th the explosive spending going on. […] They're selling the roads and bridges, but the bill is 12 times bigger." pic.twitter.com/lCBhNkzzEe
— The Hill (@thehill) August 5, 2021
I'm tired of the federal government continually promising it will fix the roads and bridges. @SenMikeLee is reading Biden's 2,702-page infrastructure bill and explains a big problem: Will this spending actually HELP local communities? pic.twitter.com/gOapRB2Qbm
— Glenn Beck (@glennbeck) August 2, 2021
This form of Republican resistance might reasonably be deemed the “roads and bridges” school of conservatism. And to be sure, a mature and developed nation should be spending a large chunk of its infrastructure budget on maintenance. But a society that only aspires to repair old things will never be great. And fundamentally, the dysfunction, incompetence, and grift that are so visible in the infrastructure bill are inextricably linked with a lack of imagination and ambition. There is no reason that a country as wealthy and mighty as America cannot afford to both dole out money to repave a road or expand an airport and also dream up and invest in ambitious new projects. Unfortunately, our political class doesn’t care about maintaining the old or investing in the new. They only see an infrastructure bill, or any spending bill, as an opportunity to get a slice of cash for themselves.
A half-century ago, America was a country that completed great projects as a matter of course. As the nation has stumbled and decayed, it has gradually become incapable of achieving those great projects. Now, it is incapable of even conceiving them.
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