Monday, January 31, 2022

Infrastructure does not mean roads and bridges, apparently

Congress passed a much-ballyhooed "infrastructure" bill. "Roads and bridges." Well, not much of it went to roads and bridges in the first place, only $110 billion out of $1.2 Trillion went to roads, bridges "and investments in other major transportation programs." 

But the The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) decides where to spend the money. The The Wall Street Journal reports  

...Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack advised staff on the types of projects they should give the red light.

According to the memo, proposals should be sent to the bottom of the pile if they “add new general purpose travel lanes serving single occupancy vehicles.” She means cars. That includes construction of new roads and highways, or expansions of existing ones. 

In short, how many roads and bridges do you get in the $1.2 trillion dollar bill? Zero. 

The infrastructure bill also included provisions to limit the endless environmental review that is used to block projects. The FHWA undercut that neatly, 

The policy imposes a 90-day limit on approval for projects reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But the FHWA is doubling down on other green restrictions. Its memo declares that any project requiring a new right of way is ineligible for a fast-tracked NEPA review. States planning to widen clogged highways using federal funds could face months or years of scrutiny. 

The WSJ continues on how this memo undermines the clear intent of Congress, an interesting political story. 

I found the original memo here. (WSJ, why do you not link to sources?) 

FHWA will implement policies and undertake actions to encourage -- and where permitted by law, require -- recipients of Federal highway funding to select projects that improve the condition and safety of existing transportation infrastructure within the right-of-way before advancing projects that add new general purpose travel lanes serving single occupancy vehicles. 

That sentence says all highway funding, not just additional funding under the infrastructure bill! So much for my dream of a desperately needed third lane on I-5! (Maybe they could call it a truck lane?) It also does not specify internal combustion. If we move to the green economy of electric cars..they're all going to be stuck in the same traffic. 

As the journal reports, though fast environmental review will be allowed for 

bicycle and pedestrian lanes, paths and facilities..resurfacing, rehabilitation or reconstruction, construction of grade separation

It will not be allowed for 

highway capacity expansion projects that involve "acquisition of more than a minor amount of right-of-way or that would result in any residential or non-residential displacements. ..." 


...if the proposed project would 

  • induce significant impacts to planned growth or land use for the area
  • have a significant impact on any natural cultural, recreational, historic or other resource, or
  • have significant impacts to travel patterns. 

So, highways must not have a significant impact on travel patterns! This is probably the most hilarious and revealing sentence of the whole document. Why build or repair highways? Not, obviously, so people or goods can get places more easily! Yes, you can build the transcontinental railroad, but only if it doesn't impact travel patterns. Yes, you can build the interstate highway system, but only if the same number of cars and trucks use it as now use local roads. ...

Imagine if canals, railroads, the interstate highway system, airports had been built, or proposed, only so long as they had no impacts to travel patterns! 

The second bullet is your listing for filing a suit to block a project you don't like. It impacts my cultural, recreational historic or other resource. 

The first is funny in its own way. What about unplanned growth? I doubt the FHWA has considered such a thing. 

The kinds of projects that the FHWA does want make for humorous reading, and worthy instruction for states and local governments that want money on what kinds of flowery language to put in their proposals. 

Investments and projects that align with the BIL and will help Build a Better America include those that 

  • improve the condition, resilience and safety of road and bridge assets consistent with asset management plans (including investing in preservation of those assets); 

Consistent with asset management plans?" "preservation?" There is some bureaucratese hedging in here that I don't understand. "Preservation" sounds like historic preservation, i.e. bridges nobody actually uses. 

  • promote and improve safety for all users, particularly vulnerable users;

"vulnerable" users? 

  • make streets and other transportation facilities accessible to all users and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act;

I guess this means the yellow plastic crosswalks, dangerous as heck on a bicycle in the rain (ask me how I know)

  • address environmental impacts ranging from stormwater runoff to greenhouse gas emissions;

This is the first of several bullets on climate change. How does fixing roads help greenhouse gas emissions? Memo to people asking for money: put a lot of that in there. Nobody is going to ask for numbers!

  • prioritize infrastructure that is less vulnerable and more resilient to a changing climate

I guess don't build freeways less than a meter above sea level? Use better concrete? 

  • future-proof our transportation infrastructure by accommodating new and emerging technologies like electric vehicle changing stations, renewable energy generation, and broaden deployment in transportation rights-of-way

Next, you know this was coming

  • reconnect communities and reflect the inclusion of disadvantaged and under-represented groups in the planning, project selection and deisign projects; ... 

Reconnect communities, however, without building any new roads. Finally 

  • direct Federal funds to their most efficient and effective use, consistent with these objectives.   

That's lovely. Consistent with objectives that deny efficient and effective use! 

Update: Of course, some emphasis on maintenance is long overdue. (See MR on the bridge collapse) Various legal, institutional and political forces have long prioritized new construction over maintenance, much to the detriment of roads and bridges. Still, some new construction here and there is not a terrible idea, especially in fast growing states, as WSJ points out. Sure, my libertarian friends, the federal government shouldn't be doing any of this and we should have universal real time tolling..... but I'm writing here about the system we have. 


  1. Elections have consequences. You could even go so far as to say that political parties have utility functions, and describe the utility functions based on policy choices they make. You might even observe that politics is about divying up the pork in the 'pork-barrel'. Indeed, you could draw on an old aphorism that dates from the Era of Trusts, to observe of today's 'progressives', "If you can't buy [or, brow-beat and bully] a congresswoman, what good is she?"

    The real failing is not on the side of the democratic party senator or representative, but it is on the side of the republican party senator or representative who falls for the con.

    In the parlimentary model of govenance, to be on the opposition side of the aisle is to oppose the government at each and every instant and instance. The republican form of government seems to abhor such practices, focussing on cooperation, bi-partisanship, and other forms of compromise. The other side of that coin is the practice of wholesale turnover of the bureaucracy whenever there is a change of party in power, in conjunction with partisan political appointees up and down the civil list. You re-start from zero every four years. It's no way to run a railroad.

    You can do little about the form of governance, but you can do much about who is given the reins of power. The old adage, "Vote early, vote often", has its place in that pantheon.

    As to federal highway spending, the keys to the citadel have landed in the hands of those who disvalue rural communities, economic efficiency, and republican constituencies. Grin and bear it, for the time being. Your chance will come around, a.s.

    1. Dont worry Ill, along with plenty of voters, will vote often and democrat when were dead.

  2. Bring back earmarks. The executive branch cannot be trusted to pick good projects. Congressmen know what their constituents want. They should write into the legislation so that they don't get horsed around by bureaucratic dip wads like these.

  3. Personal automobiles are the most inefficient (particularly in terms of space) way of moving humans. Weird an economist would push for more of it when historically investment in it has been so lopsided compared to alternatives.

    Fix what we have, but if you're serious about moving people or goods, the the most rational electric vehicle investment for America would probably have an over head wire and run on steel tracks (trains, subways, trams).

    1. My car gets me door to door at any time I want. Public transit does not. Relative to its modal share, we spend far too much in transit

    2. Because parking for private vehicles is severely underpriced.

    3. Private automobiles are essential for suburbs, and America's suburbs are the reason that the U.S. is not facing imminent demographic collapse, like Europe, Japan, China, etc.

  4. "I found the original memo here. (WSJ, why do you not link to sources?)"
    I've long wondered why they don't. Journalists want us to trust them but I'm a little low on trust these days. News reports that were footnoted and sourced would go a long way to enhance credibility.

  5. The federal and state governments collect about $40 billion a year in fuel taxes and transportation excise taxes. There are fewer than 180,000 miles of federal highways in the United States. That is more than $220k/year per mile of roadway. If half of that is channeled (diverted?) back to the states for local highways and roadways, that still leaves $110k per mile of federal highway. Reasonable estimates of annual maintenance of multilane highways are in the $25 to $30k per mile per year. That leaves more than $75k/year per mile of existing highway to pay for major repairs or replacement. Where did the money go?

  6. As an economist, I hope you reconsider your desire for widening un-priced vehicle travel lanes. You're surely smart enough to know the bulk of literature refutes additional road capacity being a way to "fix" congestion. As you are also smart enough to know, additional road capacity induces greater SOV travel demand, increases per-capita VMT, and harms the environment — which you as economist will understand is an unpriced externality in the current road pricing framework.

    1. Yes! I'm all for real-time congestion-priced tolling everywhere. Roads are no longer public goods -- goods that you can't charge for.

    2. The Economic literature is full of papers offering impracticable suggestions and recommendations to policy makers. "Congestion-priced tolling" has been implemented on interstate highway I-405 that serves the eastern half of greater metropolitan Seattle, in the State of Washington. Policy doesn't enforce congestion pricing in all of the lanes of I-405. The state highway 520 is also tolled, but interstate highway I-90 is not.

      During the 1990s, Malaysia built a 4-lane tolled highway, and charged 20 Malaysian Ringgit per one-way trip from the International Airport to Kuala Lumpur. A beautifully designed modern roadway, it was hardly used. Instead, the alternative route from the International Airport into Kuala Lumpur was a heavily congested two-lane secondary highway that was the inefficient but untolled alternative that ran through densely built up urban areas. The cost in productive time lost, extra wages paid for time spent behind the wheel of lorries and taxis, and exhaust emissions were a consequence of government policy following the recommendations of the learned economists such as yourself. Those negative externalities were the result of govenment policy, and are referred to as uncompensated governmental negative externalities, you no doubt know.

      Blind application of economic theorists' theories is poor economic practice. A properly performed benefit-cost analysis would have led to levying the toll on the older highway to reduce externalities, and left the new highway untolled to encourage diversion of traffic from the older route to the newer more economically efficient route.

  7. I could not agree more. Elections have consequences. We have seen three elections where men who have not been fully vetted by the voter has succeeded in advancing to the Presidency. These men, each in their own way, reflect the decline of voter faith and trust in the Government to do what is right. The three of them are examples of what happens when the voter is engaged only to appear and cast a vote. Our Congress has failed to take up the fight for Freedom and has settled into counting their pension benefits paid for by you and me. It is a messy time for Democracy. Here's hoping.

  8. How do you knowv that yellow plastic crosswalks can be dangerous to bicyclists in the rain?

  9. What is the incentive for representatives to care about the national budget? People have debt-like exposure to the government, so nobody wants governments to earn a profit. As for public needs, these are subject to the tragedy of the commons.

    The obvious solution here is to elect and incent representatives the same way board members are.

  10. It's even worse than you say. In Houston, they are blocking a highway project that is fully funded by state money already allocated.

  11. It appears Congress failed to write a Conference Report or Legislative History. That failure impairs or obscures the intent of the text of the law which, in turn, leaves the Biden Executive Branch to interpret the law pretty much as they see fit even if it contravenes the understanding of some of the Republican legislators who voted for it.
    Absurd. Why did Republicans not condition their votes on the writing of a Conference Report?

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  13. Hi professor. I think you are wrong here. Current research on the subject is quite clear that more highways don't solve traffic problems. Your third lane one the I-5 will not be a solution.

    1. If it were true that we are no better off with more highways, then we are no worse off with less highways. Blow them up. There won't be any more traffic jams!

      The logical flaw: Even if traffic does not improve, more people go places. You may disparage their desire to do so, but it's important to them.

      Actually the research is quite flawed -- blog post coming up. Its one of those things that everyone passes around, like you should drink 8 glasses of water a day, but turns out to be very fragile


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