Joe Biden's $2 Trillion 'Infrastructure' Plan Doubles Down on Everything That Makes American Infrastructure Insanely Expensive

The president's speech outlining his American Jobs Plan was rich in ambition, but light on details.


President Joe Biden officially unveiled his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan during a speech today in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He promised to devote big dollar amounts to the even bigger goal of rebuilding America's infrastructure, broadly defined.

"It's not a plan that tinkers around the edges. It's a once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we've seen or done since we've built the interstate highway system or the space race," Biden said today. "Our infrastructure is crumbling. It's 13th in the world."

Some $610 billion of Biden's $2 trillion spending spree would go toward transportation infrastructure, with $115 billion of that money going toward repairing highways and bridges, as well as local streets.

At least $20 billion would go toward safety improvements for all modes of transit, including cyclists and pedestrians, according to a White House outline of the American Jobs Plan. In practice, that likely means a lot of federal funding for sidewalks and bike lanes. Another $85 billion of the transportation funding in Biden's plan will go toward repairing existing public transit and funding expansions of those systems.

That money, the White House says, will double federal spending on public transit. It comes on the heels of multiple rounds of federal aid to transit included in various COVID relief bills.

The CARES Act, passed in March 2020, gave transit agencies $25 billion in emergency aid. The subsequent relief bill passed by Congress in December 2020 allocated another $15 billion toward the industry. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act topped this up with another $30 billion in funding.

And while Biden's plan says that this additional funding is also targeted at expanding systems to meet rider demand, actual rider demand has plummeted during the pandemic by as much 65 percent, according to a recent study from the Reason Foundation (which also publishes this website).

The president said in his speech today that his American Jobs Plan would replace the 10 most economically significant bridges in the country, but otherwise omitted details about what specific projects he'd like to fund.

Biden's transportation infrastructure plans are "vague because the focus is all on the second-order effects of transportation, not on actual transportation," says Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation. "It's all about what's going to happen for equity or climate change or suburban development."

Indeed, one can see that in the very name of the American Jobs Plan, the title of which does not mention infrastructure. That's more than a rhetorical point. The focus on jobs, and particularly unionized American jobs, means that Biden's $2 trillion spending plan will buy a lot less infrastructure than it otherwise could.

Prevailing wage laws that require federal infrastructure projects to pay union rates to workers are a known contributor to America's outrageously high infrastructure costs. So are Buy America provisions that generally mandate federally-funded infrastructure projects procure (often more expensive) domestic parts and materials.

Biden doubled down on both of those features of American infrastructure spending in his speech tonight.

"I'm a union guy. They built the middle class, it's about time they get a piece of the action" he said, adding later that "not a contract will go out that I control that will not go to a company that is an American company with American products all the way down the line and American workers."

Boosting union employment and American manufacturing is hardly the only broad goal Biden invoked in his speech. He also said spending on infrastructure would help us compete with China, combat climate change, kickstart economic growth, and, incredibly, reduce the federal deficit.

The nitty-gritty of which particular projects will bring us all these good things will have to be hashed out later. It certainly didn't get a lot of attention tonight.