The running joke of the Trump presidency—okay, one of the running jokes—was the constant pronouncements of an upcoming “infrastructure week” or that some kind of infrastructure deal was in the offing. Nothing. Ever. Happened. Meanwhile, ask the people of Jackson, Mississippi—who watched as the government at every level failed for decades to invest in keeping their city’s water system up to date, with some residents unable to access water for weeks—to find humor in Trump’s failure to deliver. We’ll come back to that story below.
Once again, infrastructure is the word flying around Washington, D.C., and it’s no longer a joke. There are ongoing conversations in the House and the Senate. We’ve seen a bipartisan deal announced laying out the framework on funding what’s called physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.), the urgent need for which will be our focus here. However, let me add that our government—with or without support from Republicans—absolutely must fund equally vital human infrastructure needs such as child and elder care, job training, and education, elements that are just as important in making our economy stronger. As President Biden pointed out in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on June 29, “the human infrastructure is intertwined with our physical infrastructure.”
Finally, the grownups are in charge.
For anyone who still needs convincing, the consulting firm McKinsey laid out the data on the benefits of serving the common good by investing in our country’s physical infrastructure: there is little doubt about the value of investing in good infrastructure. In 2015, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that every dollar spent on infrastructure brought an economic benefit of up to $2.20. The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers has calculated that $1 billion of transportation-infrastructure investment supports 13,000 jobs for a year. Beyond the numbers, infrastructure is critical to the health and well-being of the country: the United States could not function without the roads, bridges, sewers, clean water, and airports previous generations paid for.
As you can see below, after a nice bump early in the Obama-Biden years thanks to the 2009 stimulus package, infrastructure spending dropped off and fell to generational lows under the guy who followed them.
It would be impossible to provide even a partial list of the necessary infrastructure projects across the U.S., although this article does a nice job presenting a number of the highest priorities. The Biden White House has produced fact sheets that sum up each state’s physical infrastructure needs, demonstrating what it hopes to accomplish for Americans all across the country.
Images of the horrific water crisis in Flint, Michigan, are burned into all of our minds, but another city’s water-related tragedy may be less familiar. In Jackson, Mississippi, a city of 160,000 inhabitants, over 80% of whom are Black, the majority went without running water for weeks after a brutal mid-February storm. How brutal? An engineer at the state Department of Transportation expressed the following: “I sincerely hope that in 25 plus years from now, we are still talking about this event as the ‘worst one ever.” Even a month after the storm had passed, over 70% of people were still being told to boil their water before using it.
Why did the storm wreak such havoc in Jackson specifically? Because of a century-plus old municipal water system whose vulnerabilities were laid bare by the storm—which also pummeled Texas, killing hundreds and perhaps as many as a thousand people while knocking out that state’s power grid. Jackson residents reflected on the crisis in interviews with Good Morning America.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba specifically blamed Mississippi Republicans, who have dominated the state’s politics for decades, for failing to fund the necessary infrastructure repairs that would have mitigated damage from the storm: “I think that you find less willingness from the state to support a city like Jackson, because they don't necessarily feel that the demographics of Jackson, or even the politics of Jackson resemble the majority opinion.” In other words, they didn’t care one iota about a city full of Black Democrats.
The governor of Mississippi recently murmured something about assisting the city in looking around for low-interest loans. Yip-frickin-ee. The mayor estimated the cost of truly solving the problems faced by the city’s water system—Jackson’s water also has a lead problem rivaling that of the aforementioned Flint—at $2 billion. The Biden plan proposed to send what will hopefully be enough money to make things right for the people of Jackson.
Beyond Flint’s problems, there are dams all over Michigan that are simply falling apart. In May 2020, the Sanford and Edenville dams burst after heavy rains, flooding surrounding areas. Regarding the Edenville dam—aged 96 years—federal regulators revoked its license to generate hydropower in 2018, but the state regulators apparently dropped the ball in subsequent years. Overall, the dams failed because of “years of underfunding and neglect.”
Like in Mississippi, Michigan Republicans have controlled the purse strings for quite some time. They’ve maintained a state Senate majority since 1984, and have run the House since 2010—aided significantly by gerrymandering. From 2011 through 2019, the state’s governor was Republican Rick Snyder. While holding this trifecta of power, Michigan Republicans largely ignored the state’s infrastructure needs. In fact, Snyder, along with other members of his administration, were indicted earlier this year on criminal charges for their actions (or lack thereof) relating to Flint’s water fiasco.
On dams, the kind of flooding residents of Midland and Gladwin counties suffered is common in every part of the country. There are about 91,000 dams in the U.S. Of these, approximately 15,000-16,000 are located in spots where, if they broke, significant loss of life and property destruction would result. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials has determined that around one out of every six of those dams are “deficient.” That is a problem we need to address before the next storm.
The most infuriating, most foolish example of active Republican malfeasance originated in the time before President Caligula had made the transition from reality show buffoon to destructive demagogue. It took place at the center of the region with the largest economy of any in the U.S., and concerned its most important ground transportation hub—the one that connects the island of Manhattan to the mainland by train.
We’re also talking about a problem that Democratic President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress, with the support of local officials, had actually begun fixing over a decade ago. That was before New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, doctrinaire conservative that he is, metaphorically stood athwart the train tracks yelling “STOP!” It’s a very long story, but it’s one that demonstrates how Republican ideology, Republican lies, and plain-old Republican shortsightedness put the kibosh on a project that remains just as necessary today.
There is only one train tunnel—which happens to be 110 years old—running beneath the Hudson River. For many years, we’ve known that that’s at least one tunnel too few. What was then called the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) project would have built a second one, enabling twice as many trains to cross into the Big Apple. Roughly 200,000 people and 450 trains traveled through that sole, aging tunnel on a typical pre-COVID weekday. Other positive effects of the ARC project would have included: “alleviat[ing] congestion on local roads, reduc[ing] pollution, help[ing] the growth of the region’s economy and rais[ing] property values for suburban homeowners.” Oh, and it would have created 6,000 construction jobs right at the point during the Great Recession when unemployment was at its peak, at just about 10%.
The work was already underway when, in October of 2010, Gov. Christie suddenly reversed himself and cancelled the project. As late as that April, shortly after his inauguration, he had reiterated his long-standing support. Why, pray tell, did he take an action that “stunned other government officials and advocates of public transportation”? Even though the federal government, along with the states of New York and New Jersey, and the Port Authority, were all contributing to the bill, Christie claimed that New Jersey would end up bearing the burden of cost overruns, and so he pulled out.
It turned out that, as per a 2012 investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Christie was, to put it charitably, incorrect in just about everything he claimed as justification for cancelling the project. Looking back, it’s clear why he did what he did, based on where the money that had been dedicated to building the ARC tunnel ended up—namely in NJ’s “near-bankrupt transportation trust fund, traditionally financed by the gasoline tax.” In other words, he took the money so he wouldn’t have to raise gas taxes, and thereby earn the ill-will of the people who put him in office. What a bozo.
As bad as that decision was at the time, it was rendered even more foolish by a little thing called Hurricane Sandy, which slammed the region in 2012. A year earlier, what had been the ARC project had been tweaked somewhat and re-proposed as the Gateway project, again centering on the building of a new Hudson River tunnel. After Sandy resulted in severe flooding, an Empire State Building-sized amount of dirty, salty water ended up in the tunnels. Repairing the damage with only one tunnel in operation would cause a nightmare for commuters.
But, after initial steps were taken during Obama’s second term that culminated in a cost-sharing agreement between the states—who together would pick up half the tab, with the federal government paying the other half—a new president took office in 2017. And he was a New Yorker, born and bred, so certainly he’d make sure the Gateway project happened. Unfortunately, The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It not only physically abandoned his Fifth Avenue penthouse—he now makes Florida his primary home—he 100% abandoned the city that made him a household name. Progress on the Gateway tunnel ground to a halt, and the funding dried up, as Trump took an “obstructionist stance.”
That brings us back to the Biden-Harris administration, which formally approved the Gateway project just over a month ago. In the last days of June, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg toured the tunnel himself. He made clear that his boss was 100% on board, and fully understood the necessity for the whole of the American economy of the project. Shutting down even one of the two tubes in the existing tunnel for repairs without having first built the additional Gateway tunnel would mean, as the one-time Mayor Pete noted: “you would be feeling the economic impact all the way back in Indiana, where I come from.” To be more specific, a study by the non-profit Regional Plan Association found the impact could run as high as $16 billion, and cost 33,000 jobs.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York gave thanks to the White House on behalf of the region, and took a dig at the twice impeached former Gotham-dweller: “Now we can announce that the hostage that was the Gateway tunnel under the previous administration has been freed,” and added: “We are full speed ahead to get Gateway done.” The project could begin as early as next year, or else in 2023, according to the senator. Still, Christie and Trump set the region back years—perhaps a decade. All of us are still crossing our fingers that not only will the project happen, but also that the new tunnel is completed before the old one gives out.
But of course it’s not only urban centers that have dire infrastructure needs. Martin County is in eastern Kentucky, with a population that is, incredibly, over 99% white. Since 1999, both U.S. Senate seats from Kentucky have been held by Republicans, one of them by Mitch McConnell, who has led the Republican Party in that body since 2007. In the House, Martin County has been represented by Republican Hal Rogers since 1981.
In a video produced by the Biden White House, Barbi Ann Maynard detailed what she and her neighbors don’t have, because their infrastructure is so lacking: “People talk about Eastern Kentucky is poor, and they don't really have anything. Well, how are we ever going to have anything if our government won’t invest in our infrastructure? We’re people too. We’re American citizens. And we deserve access to clean, affordable drinking water.” Running the tap at her kitchen sink, she pointed at the not at all clear liquid flowing out of it and stated simply: “this water disgusts me. I’m afraid of this water.”
Maynard described the language that has appeared “for decades” as a warning on the back of the water bills Martin County residents receive: “If you are pregnant, infant, elderly, have a compromised immune system, consult a physician before consuming this water. If consumed over many years, it causes liver damage, kidney damage, central nervous system damage, and twice it says increased risk of cancer.” I drink New York City tap water every day, multiple glasses of it, without thinking twice. So while my region has its infrastructure deficiencies, folks in Eastern Kentucky have it even worse in their daily lives, right now.
Maynard continued by talking about the need for roads and bridges, which are either in disrepair or nonexistent across the county, as well as other priorities. The Nolan Toll Bridge was the only way for people in the area to get to the interstate. After being damaged badly, it was closed off rather than repaired. She lamented: “When you lose bridges, roads, you lose opportunities to grow. Businesses can’t come if they can’t get their product out,” and added “because we have [a] lack of infrastructure, that causes companies to not want to come and invest in Martin County.” Maynard has been fighting for increased infrastructure spending in her county for more than twenty years, and summarized the situation thusly: “I know what we could have. I know what it could be like. And I want that for my people.”
The Orange Julius Caesar took up shop in the Oval Office in January 2017, and his party controlled the House and the Senate. Using the reconciliation process, they could easily have passed a massive infrastructure package, or even a medium-sized one, with or without Democrats. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure on Trump’s watch in 2017, he came up with little more than some paper towels to toss the island’s way. Puerto Ricans continue to suffer from Maria’s damage as well as, for just one example among many, earthquakes that revealed serious vulnerabilities in the design of hundreds of schools across the island—another major infrastructure need.
Even after Democrats won the House in the 2018 midterms, Trump still could have accomplished something major on infrastructure. Trump blew off Speaker Nancy Pelosi, fuming about impeachment. Republicans can bleat about how they believe in infrastructure, how they support infrastructure. When the rubber met the (in dire need of repair) road, they failed to deliver.
The Biden-Harris team, along with congressional Democrats, are going to do the work of funding our country’s infrastructure needs in every region, just as they’ve done the work on so many issues—ranging from carrying out a nationwide vaccination program, to rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, to passing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, among other accomplishments. This White House knows that strengthening our physical as well as human infrastructure is good politics as well as the right thing to do for the American economy, and for the American people.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)