Biden's call for 'world-class' infrastructure excites transportation leaders

President Biden’s massive infrastructure proposal has excited transportation executives who say it is unprecedented and will have a broad, lasting impact on the country.

Workers toil on a project to replace old water lines under Main Street as part of work to update water and sewer systems as well as prepare the road for the expansion of a street car line in Kansas City, Mo.
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pWednesday, March 30, 2021. Looking beyond the £1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, President Joe Biden and lawmakers are laying the groundwork for another of his top legislative priorities with a long-sought boost to the nation's roads, bridges and other infrastructure that could meet GOP resistance to a hefty price tag. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (C) Charlie Riedel/AP Workers toil on a project to replace old water lines under Main Street as part of work to update water and sewer systems as well as prepare the road for the expansion of a street car line in Kansas City, Mo. Wednesday, March 30, 2021.

Looking beyond the £1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, President Joe Biden and lawmakers are laying the groundwork for another of his top legislative priorities with a long-sought boost to the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure that could meet GOP resistance to a hefty price tag. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The outline calls for £621 billion to upgrade and modernize everything from roads to bridges, railways, buses, trains and airports. Electric vehicles are a major part of the proposal, with investments in charging infrastructure, the battery supply chain, manufacturing, tax incentives and job creation. An all-encompassing infrastructure push is a rarity, according to transportation experts.

Biden’s plan will need to receive congressional approval, so details are likely to change. But transportation leaders called the proposal a bold, necessary step to upgrade US transportation. “President Biden’s plan is the most visionary proposal for the nation’s transportation network since the dawn of the Interstate Highway System,” Janette Sadik-Khan, president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said in a statement.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has done report cards on US infrastructure since 1998, and the country has never received better than a C-, according to its chair emeritus Greg DiLoreto. He said Biden’s proposal will avert negative economic consequences from a failing infrastructure. “We have a proposal, finally, that may cut into the infrastructure shortfall,” DiLoreto told CNN Business.

Paul P. Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said that in 40 years in the field, he’s never heard a president talk more directly and forcefully on the importance of transportation investments. “This is transformational for mobility,” Skoutelas said. “It’s years, if not decades overdue.”

Biden’s plan was especially cheered by companies pushing to electrify the US transportation fleet. Many described as the federal government’s biggest push yet for electric vehicles. There are currently 41,155 electric vehicle charging stations in the United States, according to the US Department of Energy.

Biden calls for investing £174 billion in electric vehicles, including a national network of 500,000 chargers. He also called for replacing 50,000 diesel transit buses and at least 20% of school buses with electric vehicles. Scott Mercer, founder of Volta Charging, which operates 1,700 charging stations, says that the federal government will need to be careful to focus not just on the quantity of electric vehicle charging stations, but the quality too.

He pointed to the charging networks of electric car makers Tesla and Rivian, which are exclusively for their own vehicles, as the kind of model that doesn’t make the most sense for public investment. “Imagine if Porsche were to go out and announce they were building gas stations for only Porsche 911 drivers. It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Mercer said.

Rivian declined to comment, and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. Other companies have tried more open approaches, such as GM, which has a partnership with the EVgo, which has 800 public chargers in 34 states, and which says it is building 2,700 new fast-charging stations over the next five years. Gabe Klein, a transportation consultant at CityFi, who previously led transportation departments in Chicago and Washington, DC, praised the Biden plan for having a holistic approach.

He pointed to how the proposal calls for everything from electrifying school buses to building chargers for those buses, and nurturing a supply chain and manufacturing in the US to develop the buses. “If we’re going to save ourselves in this climate crisis, this is the level of investment we need,” Klein said. Racial equity is also a component of the proposal, which calls for £20 billion to reconnect neighborhoods historically divided by highways.

Black neighborhoods were routinely targeted and bulldozed to make way for highways in the 20th century. The proposal was welcomed by Marvin Roger Anderson, who is leading an effort to redevelop Rondo, a St. Paul neighborhood that was destroyed to make way for Interstate 94.

“[This] would be an enormous step forward to help close the wealth gap and help communities of color,” Anderson said. But Biden’s plan is not without critics. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, cautioned that the 28% corporate tax rate proposed to fund the plan could dissuade investment, and called the tax hike to fund the plan the largest in five decades.

“The president is proposing a behemoth tax and spending plan that centralizes more power in D.C.,” said Matthew Dickerson, director of the foundation’s work on the federal budget.

Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which focuses on urban policy, said that the investments in public transit and highway removal risked becoming overly expensive.

“Without cost reform, including a requirement that all construction contracts that benefit from federal funding be made available to the public, the danger is that more money simply inflates the cost of existing projects in terms of pushing up the cost of materials and labor,” Gelinas said.

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