Remember “Infrastructure Week”? It went from a good-faith effort to focus on our country’s growing infrastructure needs, to a recurring internet joke. The meme of Infrastructure Week almost perfectly sums up America’s attitude towards infrastructure projects over the past several decades. Everyone talks big on fixing our roads, bridges and buildings, but when it comes down to action…Squirrel!
While it remains to be seen if anything actually gets done, it feels like the first time in a while that an actual infrastructure bill is feasible. Many of us are finding the details of these infrastructure plans of meaningful consequence. Let’s take a look at some of the actions included in the newest infrastructure plan, called Build Back Better.
Nearly 20% of the roads in this county are in “Poor” condition (FHWA 2017) with the construction backlog piling up into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Many of these areas have seen dramatic increases in backlog over the past several years, to the point where many local agencies cannot spend money fast enough to dig themselves out of the hole. Typically local agencies appeal to the state for funds when they are underwater, but with state tax revenue and unemployment numbers fluctuating as a result of the ongoing pandemic many states are hesitant to release large sums of money for road work.
The initial proposal is to immediately inject $50 billion over the first year of the administration with the goal of kickstarting the process of repairing existing roads, highways, and bridges. A key component of this proposal is that while a lot of this money will go to the state, much of it will be received directly by cities and towns. This last point is important, as it recognizes that the majority of our roads are maintained by local agencies. We will certainly keep a sharp eye on this money, and so should you.
Invest in Complete Streets
The next goal in the Build Back Better agenda is to work with the U.S. Senate to increase funding for key safety initiatives like the highway safety improvement program. The U.S. DOT will work with local agencies to build “complete streets”, which are streets designed to improve access to roads for pedestrians, cyclists, public transportation, as well as automobiles. The availability of “complete streets” will encourage the use of sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transportation; increasing public safety while promoting a wider range of travel options.
Stabilize the Highway Trust Fund
The Highway Trust Fund is a fuel tax from which proceeds are used to maintain and repair existing roads and bridges, as well as to fund public transportation projects. This effort has traditionally received bi-partisan support as an effective way to fund our pavement infrastructure. The Build Back Better infrastructure agenda seeks alternate revenue sources to stabilize the program. This coincides with the goal of increasing federal investments for electric vehicles. As electric vehicles rise as a viable competitor to the internal combustion engine, gas taxes, such as the Highway Trust Fund will pull in smaller revenues, in-turn driving the need for alternative sources of funding for the program.
Ambitious Transition to Electric Vehicles
Dozens of countries around the world have dedicated themselves to the ambitious goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. Japan, the U.K., Germany, and even the world’s largest emitter, China, have all dedicated themselves to this goal in service of curbing the effects of climate change on our planet. The U.S., in addition to rejoining the rest of the world in the Paris Climate Accord, is also determined to reach net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. To that end, the Build Back Better agenda has proposed major federal subsidies to electric vehicles, including the full restoration of the electric-vehicle tax credit, to encourage families and businesses alike to shift to electric powered vehicles.
These efforts will be supported by a planned $5 billion over 5-years investment into battery and energy storage technology. The goal is to enable Americans to travel anywhere in the country in an electric vehicle by 2030. Finally, the plan calls for a joint effort by the department of energy and the department of transportation to develop new electric vehicle infrastructure and provide grants to local agencies that invest in new charging infrastructure, such as highway pavement technology which charges electric vehicles while in transit.
With so many lofty infrastructure goals and many billions of dollars in funding needed, let’s all keep a close eye on the Build Back Better agenda and ensure that this administration is held accountable to the promises it makes and goals it sets.