President Biden will soon begin the tussle of getting his American Jobs Act signed into law. It is a $3 trillion dollar proposal that includes a mega-infrastructure component designed to infuse the economy. Right now, it is a just a proposal and quite a distance from being a reality.
But it might first be a good idea to look back at another president’s then nearly unimaginable and equally---at the time---gigantic public works infrastructure idea that today is forgotten by all except for, perhaps, historians.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 is the law that made the country’s interstate highway system possible. President Eisenhower, as a General in WWII, having seen the efficiency of Germany’s autobahn and realizing that in a national emergency, America did not have the means of moving military hardware across the country in a quick and efficient manner, knew the country needed something similar. His idea---an interstate highway system---also encountered its share of naysayers, nitpickers and roadblocks. Ultimately, the system got built. Today the interstates are not even an afterthought.
The Biden plan, however, goes light years beyond the $128 billion the U.S. spent way back when to create the nation’s interstate highways. The American Jobs Act includes money to repair or rebuild roads, bridges, water systems---including the lead piping many still have---the electric grid and more. Way more.
According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 13th, behind Singapore, Netherlands, Hong Kong and Switzerland in infrastructure, in what it calls ‘productivity-enhancing investments.’ The White House says the Biden plan addresses this and “will unify and mobilize the country to meet the great challenges of our time: the climate crisis and the ambitions of an autocratic China.”
It is too early to know just how much of what the President wants will be approved. Republican leadership has already begun constructing its own brick wall against passage in its current form. Three trillion dollars, said Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, is too costly. Republicans also oppose Biden’s plan for paying for it---higher corporate taxes. However the matter is resolved, Colorado already has ideas for spending its share of the money if and when that comes to fruition.
“We have real needs,” said Matt Inzeo, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Colorado’s needs, he said, are not just the heavily trafficked roads in population centers, though they could use attention. No part of the state has escaped neglect. “We’re currently focusing on catching up…we have fallen substantially behind.” In smaller communities, Inzeo said, “we’re talking about roads that have not had major repavement since the 70’s.” A 2019 survey placed Colorado at #47 for rural repaving.
Two projects CDOT has identified are I-270, a major metro area arterial that moves traffic north and northwest, and Floyd Hill, the steep incline west of Denver leading into the city, as two high priority projects. I-270, said Inzeo, “has a number of structural and safety issues.” Floyd Hill, what Inzeo calls a “critical segment on the I-70 corridor,” will undergo “major reconstruction.” State bridges are also a priority with many in need of attention, he said. But a revenue stream that comes from vehicle registrations offsets the costs of upgrade and repairs. None presents a danger to the driving public.
Inzeo credits Colorado’s legislature for understanding the infrastructure issue and budgeting money to address its needs. But even with current allocations and a gasoline tax to finance improvements, maintaining has never quite kept pace with true improvements. Add in one other element and it is easy to see the challenge Colorado has that, perhaps, other states may not have to consider.
Stress on Colorado’s roadways has been magnified by a population boom that has occurred over the last 25 years. Open space between Denver and Fort Collins has been swallowed up with new development. The same holds true between Denver and Colorado Springs. In 1995, Colorado had a population of 3.3 million. Today more than 5.7 million residents call the state home.
If Biden’s grand idea passes, it will extend well beyond upgrading the nation’s roads and bridges. Also included are segments dedicated to green energy, jobs, racial reconciliation and an expanded social safety net.
Included in Biden’s proposal are manufacturing, construction of 50,000 electric car charging ports, broadband that will wire the nation’s rural areas, research and development, an upgrade in the manufacturing of electric vehicles, improvements in the nation’s rail system and a refocus on climate change.
Boulder Congressman Joe Neguse wants what he calls a ‘climate conservation corps’ modeled after President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps that helped dig the nation out of the Great Depression. With a modern day CCC, said Neguse, “We can put our environment, our economy and our future at the forefront.”
One potentially controversial element included in the Biden proposal is an eight-year, $400 billion plan dedicated to home-based, long-term health care. There is no doubt the aging part of the population---baby boomers---and people with disabilities will require more and more attention in years ahead. But Republicans are balking at its inclusion, asking ‘what does this have to do with infrastructure?’ But the coronavirus has dramatically exasperated this issue. It is estimated that the virus has upended the nation’s nursing homes, assisted living facilities and group homes. By one count, it has killed nearly 175,000 in these communities and raised awareness of the need for more extended care choices.
With a House of Representatives separated by only a small margin and the Senate a 50-50 split, the President needs every vote he can get if his grand plan is to become a reality. This week he plans to send representatives to Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s home turf, and California, House Minority Leader McCarthy’s state, to sell the idea and shore up support.