After all the speeches out on the cold White House South Lawn, at 4:21 Monday afternoon President Biden took but a few seconds to sign the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. That brief moment, built on cooperation among senators from both parties, should have happened long ago. We don’t just mean earlier this year, but in the last, horrible administration of the horrible Donald Trump or even before him.
Real investments in roads and bridges and ports and transit have been needed for many years, and it’s something in which America once led the world. Now, we’re the laggard with new competitors like China churning out high-speed rail and new airports while we plod along on the aging systems put in place by our distant predecessors.
But it’s not only about just printing money in Washington and dropping it across the country. It must be used wisely and economically. Projects, from expanded broadband to upgraded water delivery and sewage disposal to those roads and bridges and rails, must be worthwhile. And crucially, they must stay in budget and on schedule.
Jobs are great and good jobs are greater and good union construction jobs are the greatest to many, especially to politicians running for reelection. But as we said before, there’s a big difference between spending and building.
You can spend $1 million or $1 billion or $1 trillion to hire crews to dig a hole (a $1 trillion one would be very, very big), generating a payroll and getting those bulldozers bulldozing. You could then spend the same amount to hire the equivalent crews to fill it in. You’ve now produced a huge investment in construction jobs, but have no improved infrastructure allowing for economic growth and greater efficiencies in moving people or goods or ideas.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday touted the biggest boondoggle in the country, Gateway, now estimated by Amtrak at $33.7 billion. It’s a lot of money to spend, even just the $14 billion zero-capacity Phase 1 being considered, but it fails the smart investment test.