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. 

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