On Oct. 2, Sound Transit opened its light rail extension to Northgate. Some 45,000 passengers a day will use the line once the pandemic passes, and the transit spine through downtown and past the airport, soon to reach Bellevue, will be an essential transportation option at a time when we must lower greenhouse-gas emissions.
It was on that same date in 1937 that President Franklin Roosevelt paid his second visit to the construction site of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. After the dam was completed in 1942, it not only provided irrigation water but became one of the biggest generators of electricity in the United States — clean hydropower, although stopping the natural migratory path for salmon.
These are examples of what most people imagine when they hear the word “infrastructure” and we were once very good at it. From the state-sponsored Erie Canal in New York and the land-grant railroads of the 19th century (the young Republican Party was very big on infrastructure, or “internal improvements”), to airports and the Interstate Highway System in the 20th, it was an American characteristic.
This hasn’t been true for several decades, however, with momentum slowed by tax cuts, red tape and political division. China operates nearly 24,700 miles of high-speed passenger trains (from zero in 2002). Spain’s mileage is 3,400; France, 2,400; Germany, 2,200, and Japan more than 2,100. The United States has none.
Meanwhile, the most recent infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a C-minus.
No wonder much attention has been paid to the infrastructure part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Unlike his predecessor’s repeated empty promises of an “infrastructure week,” this is a real plan — $1.2 trillion worth of internal improvements, although that was scaled down to get bipartisan support.
The bill passed the Senate in August. Since then, it’s been stymied in the House. There, progressives want priority given to Biden’s other signature package: $3.5 trillion to expand the social safety net and address climate change.
As I write, progressives hold the advantage, at least enough to block action on infrastructure. Meanwhile, conservative Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are opposed to the price tag on the safety net bill. Not for nothing did Will Rogers say in the 1930s, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
These tense negotiations are happening while Republicans are playing with matches concerning the debt ceiling, even with the threat of default on the full faith and credit of the federal government.
Infrastructure benefits the economy by improving productivity, communication and supply chains, even innovation through the introduction of new technologies. It creates jobs. As public investment, it costs tax money. But where it endures it more than repays its original costs. That was the case with New Deal projects such as Grand Coulee.
By contrast, spending on unnecessary wars — $8 trillion since 9/11 — is gone. Spending on tax cuts that largely benefit the rich adds little to the broader economy while increasing inequality. Tax cuts to corporations mostly go to stock buybacks that benefit shareholders, yet another driver of widening inequity.
Among other things, it would rebuild 20,000 miles of roads, repair critical bridges, spend $66 billion on passenger rail and $49 billion on public transit, allocate billions more for clean water and environmental projects, strengthen the power grid, and expand broadband access.
Biden’s other Build Back Better measure is even bigger, focused on social spending and equality. It would offer paid day care for those who qualify, strengthen Obamacare, free community college, expand Medicare benefits, and much more. This has a price tag of about $2 trillion over 10 years.
Now, as Democratic leaders try to bring the party together on Biden’s economic package, they face tough challenges about what to keep, what to jettison, whether to do a few things in depth or spread short-term programs more widely, and get to a cost that would bring along the entire party with such a tiny congressional majority.
Arguing that we can’t afford advanced infrastructure, a better safety net and to address climate change is absurd in light of The Washington Post’s Pandora Papers stories, showing how billionaires hide their wealth from taxes. Or a recent ProPublica story about how more than half of America’s wealthiest exploit the system to avoid estate taxes.
But this reality doesn’t matter when Manchin or Sinema in the Senate can torpedo legislation that’s widely popular. This is now, like it or not.
The big advances of the New Deal came thanks to commanding Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Even then, some of the most consequential achievements such as Social Security took years of work and compromise before becoming law.
Ideally, the Democrats would deliver popular programs quickly. But time is working against them. The party in control of the White House usually loses seats in midterm elections, so 2022 may be no different. Centrist Democrats will be especially at risk and Republicans could take control of Congress.
Now it’s gut-check time. Biden has an opportunity to be a transformational president. Or, partly because of the fault lines in his own party, a mere historical footnote tossed in 2024.
Then it’s back to tax cuts, deregulation, environmental protection rollbacks, “government is the problem” and “infrastructure weeks” that never happen. Today’s once-in-only-a-few-generations opportunity to change course will be lost.