After bipartisan negotiations, the bill has greatly evolved since we last examined this issue in April — when we awarded Three Pinocchios to the claim that the $2.3 trillion proposal devoted only 5 to 7 percent to “real infrastructure.” That package would have spent the money on an eclectic mix of programs over 10 years. But the legislation was later greatly slimmed down and became more focused — a key reason it earned 19 Republican votes in the Senate and 13 in the House.
In the end, the bill authorizes about $566 billion of gross budget authority (and tax cuts), which will be spent mostly but not entirely over five years. The bill is sometimes reported as valued at $1.2 trillion, but that larger number includes funding for highways and other programs that was already assumed as part of the current spending baseline.
Generally, the bill is best described as $550 billion in additional spending above the baseline, so that’s what we need to look at when we examine the accuracy of this “11 percent” claim.
First of all, what is “real infrastructure?” That is subject to some interpretation, but no one really debates that fixing highways or bridges clears the bar.
Well, about 20 percent of the new money — $110 billion — would be used to fund roads, bridges and other surface transportation programs. So, already, we are above 11 percent.
In English common use, the definition of “infrastructure,” or at least “public infrastructure,” has grown over time to encompass new inventions such as electricity, railways, and, more recently, broadband pipes and fibers. Although newer, these are still concrete-and-steel structures for transportation and wires and pipes for utilities.
On top of fixing bridges and roads, the bill allocates $39.2 billion for mass transit, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, $25 billion for airport improvements and $17.3 billion for ports and inland waterways. That adds up to $147.5 billion.
“Together, that is $257.5 billion in above-baseline spending for capital improvements to infrastructure that is, in almost all instances, owned by the public,” Jeff Davis, senior fellow of the Eno Center for Transportation, said in an email. He noted that “freight railroads may be able to get a little of the railroad safety money, but those are regulated common carriers serving a public benefit.”
So now we are at nearly 46 percent of the bill being spent on infrastructure. But that’s not all.
“Then there is also $55 billion for wastewater, drinking water, and water supply, which is also infrastructure that is almost exclusively owned by the public," Davis said. “Sewage and drinking water systems are unquestionably infrastructure if you ask a random voter, so I would add that, and then you get $312.5 billion in spending on what almost no one will deny is real infrastructure if you confront them with the specifics.”
Okay, that brings us to nearly 57 percent of the bill.
The other $210.5 billion also includes items that might be considered infrastructure.
For instance, the bill devotes $65 billion to improving broadband access, which will be especially beneficial in rural areas. “I feel that there is a stronger constitutional role for the federal government here than there is for mass transit, if you look at what the Post Office meant in 1787, but others disagree, and it is mostly not publicly owned,” Davis said.
That gets us past two-thirds of the total spending of the bill.
An additional $73 billion is for upgrading electrical power and the grid (mostly privately owned), and $43 billion is for resiliency upgrades across all modes for climate change and extreme weather. There’s also $7.5 billion for electric school buses and zero-emission ferries and $7.5 billion for national electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.
Whether all or some of the items in that last list should be considered infrastructure is more debatable. Some might include electrical power, which brings us above 80 percent.
When Trump was president, it’s worth noting, he had a more expansive definition of infrastructure than just roads and bridges. “Together, we can reclaim our building heritage,” he said in his 2018 State of the Union address. “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.”
In 2018, the Trump White House promoted federal grants specifically for rail and water system investments as part of its own $200 billion infrastructure proposal. The plan was to spur an additional $1.3 trillion in state, local and private investment with those funds.
“The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly,” Trump tweeted in December 2017, complaining that “our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!” The train accident is a reference to an Amtrak derailment that killed three people.
By 2020, Trump began including airports as part of infrastructure spending. “Our bridges, tunnels, freeways and airports will no longer be the sight of shame, but they’ll be a source of pride,” he said in an infrastructure speech at a UPS airport hub. “From coast to coast, town to town, we’re constructing new roads, railways, runways and waterways.”
So, even by the infrastructure metrics expressed during his presidency, this bill is at least 40 percent “real infrastructure” — $110 billion for roads, bridges and surface transportation, $66 billion for rail, $25 billion for airports, and $17.3 billion for ports and inland waterways.
The Pinocchio Test
No matter how you slice it, the claim that the infrastructure bill is only 11 percent “real infrastructure” is simply false. More than one-third of the bill would qualify as infrastructure under the standards used by Trump during his presidency. But many more elements could be considered infrastructure, bringing the percentage as high as 80 percent.
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