Episode 67 – God Help Us, It’s Really Infrastructure Week


Beth Osborne: Your question assumes that anyone is having a substantive conversation about any of this at all. And I would like to rid you of that foolish and frankly ignorant thought. No, we’re not having that level of conversation. We are having a conversation about how much money we can come up with, and how to distribute it so every Senate office can have a nice press release about what’s coming to their state.

Aaron Naparstek: Hey, it’s Aaron Naparstek here. And, you know, we don’t usually do breaking news here at The War on Cars, but we’re making a bit of an exception for this episode because, folks, it is finally here, it is happening. It’s Infrastructure Week. Last Thursday, following weeks of negotiations and a closed-door meeting in the White House, President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of 10 senators announced …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: We had a really good meeting. And to answer that direct question, we have a deal.]

Aaron: They made a deal on a $579-billion federal infrastructure package. And it legitimately seems like kind of a big deal. If it moves forward, this would be the largest federal investment in infrastructure in a century. Now President Biden and the senators, they didn’t really hash out many of the details, but they agreed on a general framework for how the funds would be spent. On the transportation front, there would be $49-billion for public transit, and that would be the biggest federal investment ever in the history of US public transit. $66-billion for passenger and freight rail, $7.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure, and another $7.5-billion for electric buses. $11 billion for road safety enhancements, things like vision zero programs. And of course, as usual, the biggest bucket of transportation funds—about $110 billion—would be set aside for roads, bridges and highways—the car stuff. President Biden presented this as a transformative moment.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: These investments represent the kind of national effort that throughout our history has literally—not figuratively—literally transformed America, and propelled us into the future. The transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, the investments that we made together that only our government was in a position to make. Now we’re poised to add a new chapter in that American tradition.]

Aaron: And so that’s what we’re gonna talk about today. What is the deal with the deal? Will this infrastructure package even happen? And if it does, will it do anything to help reduce America’s crushing automobile dependence, modernize our transportation system and address the climate emergency that is now upon us? It was 115 degrees in Oregon yesterday. Here to help us understand the federal infrastructure package and what it means for the war on cars is Beth Osborne. That’s the voice we heard at the top. Beth is the executive director of Transportation for America, a national organization based in Washington, DC, that works to rethink and reform America’s transportation systems. Before that, Beth served as the assistant secretary for transportation policy at the United States Department of Transportation. She’s also worked as an adviser and an aide in both the Senate and the House. So Beth really understands how the system works. And more importantly, she understands how federal transportation policy does not work.

 Aaron: And Beth does not pull her punches. This was a fun conversation. One note before we get to Beth, you’re gonna hear some banging and drilling sounds in the background during this interview. Those are not meant to be infrastructure construction sound effects. Beth’s next door neighbor is doing some renovations. So sorry about that. It’s not too bad.

Aaron: But before we get to all that, a quick word from our very good friends at Cleverhood.

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Aaron: Beth Osborne, welcome to The War on Cars.

Beth Osborne: Thank you so much for having me.

Aaron: It’s great to have you. You’ve been on our list for a while now. Like, we’ve got to get Beth on the podcast.

Beth Osborne: That sounds both nice and slightly intimidating. “You’ve been on my list.”

Aaron: Well, but this is the thing is, like, federal transportation policy is so intimidating, it’s so hard and it’s really arcane and difficult. You know, I’ve been sort of trying to understand federal transportation policy for years.

Beth Osborne: Well, I’m certainly happy to demystify it. I think one of the important things to know is it’s not actually that complex. It’s overly rudimentary, and I think people are seeking greater thought and purpose and analysis in it than actually exists. The basis of federal transportation programs is, we raise money and we send it around the country, and we do some very basic oversight to make sure that those building projects are complying with environmental and labor law. But otherwise, you can do whatever you want.

Aaron: So in the end, it’s just a sort of redistribution of federal funds to state DOTs, which tend to like highway and suburban sprawl-type projects?

Beth Osborne: And it’s easiest to build on the fringe because that’s where your land is cheapest, and that’s where you have the least interference from folks that might not like what you’re doing. At the federal level, the mantra is flexibility. We hand out money, and the goal is to keep it flexible, recognizing that different states across the country have different challenges and different needs and issues that they have to face. And they take that flexibility to an unbelievable extreme. And I think one of the problems is in Washington, DC, we do a poor job of finishing the sentence of the flexibility. So when there’s a debate about fix-it-first approach, someone cries “Flexibility!” And no one steps up and says, “You’re saying states need flexibility to not repair their roads while they build new things they can’t afford to maintain?” And if we would just take that step, we would actually get into some substance. But that never occurs. We’re always speaking in platitudes, and we’re never getting into any actual substance or outcomes here.

Aaron: Yeah, that’s interesting because, you know, I even feel like the word “infrastructure” is a kind of platitude. I mean, we’re here talking to you today because it’s apparently finally Infrastructure Week.

Beth Osborne: [laughs]

Aaron: Is it? Are we in Infrastructure Week now?

Beth Osborne: Oh, I feel like we’re in Infrastructure Summer. For someone who works on transportation, I haven’t had a weekend off in a long time.

Aaron: [laughs] Okay, so something is actually happening here this time?

Beth Osborne: It definitely is. We are doing this for real. We are considering real proposals and real legislation. The House is marking up a bill this week. The Senate is likely to markup a reauthorization of our surface transportation program after the Fourth of July. And the White House is negotiating a deal. That is as Infrastructure Week as you get. Now will that take us to a completed piece of legislation? When you deal with big issues, it doesn’t always work that way.

Aaron: I see this group of 10 senators coming out of the White House with President Biden, and they’re announcing a compromise and a deal. And, you know, it’s a pretty positive press conference. But, you know, my first reaction is to be just incredibly skeptical. Like, I see senators from Louisiana, Maine, Alaska, West Virginia, Montana, New Hampshire. And granted, like, five of them are Democrats and five of them are Republicans, but these are places that are more rural, and not very urban, and more car dependent and not super transit oriented. And I wonder, is anyone there who is sort of really looking out for the interests of transit riders or bicycle commuters, or people who simply live in big cities, or would like to live in big cities with more walkable, less car-dependent options? I feel like we’ve seen progressive transportation and climate justice advocates get rolled and get sort of cut out of the process so many times. And should we be worried about the people who are making this deal, and what they’re coming up with?

Beth Osborne: Yes, we should be worried, but there is no group that would be any better. There is no senator that will get up and say, “I represent an urban state.” Every state has more rural area than urban. Now when you’re not from that state, you probably only think about the biggest urban area. So I’m from Louisiana, and when I think of Louisiana, I think about five different areas of the state. The representative from Louisiana is representing New Orleans—one of the most walkable communities in the entire country. Does that mean that the senator is going to be representing that? Probably not. And I’ll go with the second thing, this notion that people in rural America just cannot spend enough money and time driving vast distances is the most anti-rural, dismissive, almost hateful attitude towards rural Americans I can imagine.

Beth Osborne: And they hear it both from their own representatives, and also from urbanites who just think that that’s all they want to do. They don’t want to invest in their retirement, they want to invest in more big cars. That’s not the case. In fact, a huge number of the counties with the most carless households are in rural America. They have huge aging populations, and people are facing either leaving their lifelong homes because they can’t get around outside of a car, or becoming totally isolated and unable to get to the doctor. These are places that don’t have as good access to broadband, so if you can’t drive yourself to places for medical care, you’re not going to get telehealth. So I reject the notion that the division is between rural and urban. The division is between where people live and where people don’t live. And when we think about rural America—and unfortunately, it’s rural representatives that are most guilty of this—they think of cornfields and forests. They don’t think of people. But rural towns and rural areas where people live face all the same issues as urban areas. When I was a kid, I lived in Ravenswood, West Virginia. It’s a place I walked more than in my entire life. And I lived in New Orleans and Washington, DC. I walked everywhere when I was five years old, at 10 years old, in this town. When you’re in rural America in towns, like, that’s what we’re trying to create in urban America, we’re trying to create a series of neighborhoods that are basically rural towns back to back.

Aaron: And I mean, arguably, America’s village and town centers have been much more devastated by highway building and sprawl than American cities. Why doesn’t that message seem to translate up into the federal infrastructure process? Because what we so often get from federal infrastructure and transportation policy is just more roads and bridges, more car stuff, more highway building, more sprawl. And this stuff seems like, as you know, very harmful to rural communities, too.

Beth Osborne: Your question assumes that anyone is having a substantive conversation about any of this at all.

Aaron: [laughs] Right.

Beth Osborne: And I would like to rid you of that foolish and frankly ignorant thought. No, we’re not having that level of conversation. We are having a conversation about how much money we can come up with, and how to distribute it so every Senate office can have a nice press release about what’s coming to their state.

Aaron: That’s depressing, Beth.

Beth Osborne: Oh, look, I’m not here to make you feel joyful. [laughs] I will say that knowing the problems is how we’re going to fix them.

Aaron: Yeah.

Beth Osborne: So I don’t want people to walk in and think that they need to come prepared to have an intricate conversation about how the built environment and people’s choices and travel and financial issues intertwine to create our current transportation scenario. We have to come in at a very remedial level. And a lot of this comes from, you know, if you are in the House, the leader of an office in DC with six to eight people, how many of those people are you going to dedicate to an issue that comes up every six to seven years? As a responsible steward of the taxpayer dollar, are you going to take a whole position and hire a transportation expert, when that issue may not come up during your entire tenure in the House? Same thing in the Senate. Now they have more people. You know, a smaller office is going to be like 20, 22, and it could get much, much larger. But again, you know, of your policy staff, you got, what, five or so people? You’re going to dedicate one of them to an issue that’s unlikely to come up during your entire term? And I will say one of the biggest problems with this program is the trust fund.

Aaron: What is the trust fund? And why is that? I mean, transportation has long been a federal priority.

Beth Osborne: So the reason you don’t have to have an annual fight over transportation is because we have a trust fund. And the rules for a trust fund is if 90 percent of the funding raised for the program comes from a user fee, that it can be trust funded and we don’t have an annual spending debate over it. And that creates certainty, and it makes it easier to build multi-year projects. But if not only are we not paying 90 percent of it with the user fee—which we haven’t been for years—and we’re now saying that the user fee is awful, why are we not just making it a regular program? Why is transportation so important that it’s more important than schools or food to poor kids or health care or all the other things that the government spends money on? Or defense or environmental issues? The trust fund guarantees to those spending the money that they don’t really have to be accountable but every several years, and by then all the people who kind of educated themselves on the various issues have moved on or have forgotten. Just like, I did a huge amount of electrical work in my house 15 years ago. If I tried to do it again, I’d have to start over. I wouldn’t remember a thing.

Aaron: Right. Right.

Beth Osborne: You know, it’s the same thing on Capitol Hill. Now they argue every year over housing and farming policy, and all kinds of issues that they have to justify in the budget. But transportation? They don’t. So there isn’t deep thinking on this thing. Accountability is what is missing. Flexibility is the goal, not accountability. And that is amazingly true on both sides of the aisle. Republicans who are supposed to be skeptical about massive government spending don’t seem to think that there should be any accountability for the taxpayer dollar in this program. And Democrats, who are supposed to be so concerned about societal outcomes like equity and climate, don’t seem to think they need to apply that to this program. So when you hear that it’s bipartisan, it’s bipartisan in a way where both sides are just abandoning all of their beliefs and goals. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.

Aaron: Well, so let’s talk for a minute about what this actual framework, or this deal that Biden and these senators came up with, what it’s about. I mean, most of what you tend to hear in typical mainstream coverage is that we hear a lot about the politics of these kinds of things. So will we have a deal? Will we not have a deal? Deal or no deal? You know, it’s like a game show or something. Can you help us understand, to the extent that it’s understandable and known, what the substance of this deal is? Like, what kind of infrastructure are we talking about here?

Beth Osborne: Oh, I have no idea. And they don’t either.

Aaron: [laughs] Okay.

Beth Osborne: It’s really fascinating because it doesn’t exist. There is no policy in this deal. If you look on the White House website for the deal, it has a list of words followed by a list of numbers. So it says, “Highways: $109 billion. Transit: $49 billion” What does that mean? Which highways? What highways? Repairing highways? Building new highways? It has a bucket called “Safety: $11 billion.” Does that mean the other $109 billion will not be spent on safety? I don’t know.

Aaron: Right. We’re spending this $100 billion on unsafe highways. We’re gonna spend $11 billion on these safe ones here.

Beth Osborne: Right. Well, frankly, which is our normal approach. You know, we say, “Oh, I see a problem in transportation. There’s no bike-ped infrastructure. Here’s a billion dollars to retrofit the entire system for bike-ped while spending $40 billion to undermine that. But in fairness, when you’re negotiating a deal like this, you’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to have some bones to the proposal. And then you can go deeper and talk about, all right, now that we’ve got our buckets, how do we want to see this money spent?

Aaron: Biden and the US DOT folks have come out and said that this infrastructure bill would produce supposedly the biggest investment in public transit in the history of the United States.

Beth Osborne: Low bar. It would also produce the biggest in highways and roadways that could make it impossible, if not deadly, for someone to reach that transit. I don’t know how to evaluate the transportation side. If we’re just going to dump money into the existing program, we’ve done a lot to make transit fail by our roadway investment. So I’m uncompelled by that.

Aaron: So you see $66 billion dollars for rail, and all this money for Amtrak, and you’re like, “Whatever. That’s not really going to solve the problem?”

Beth Osborne: I don’t know. I don’t know how it’s going to be spent. Is it going to be spent in two corridors to make them spectacular, while the rest of the country doesn’t have very good service? Is it going to be spent to bring areas all over the country up to some level of service before we start gold-plating other services? I don’t know what it is. It’s a number.

Aaron: But is it not a good thing that at least the framework has committed to funding transit in some form or another? Is that not unusual that we would at least have that kind of commitment up front?

Beth Osborne: It’s certainly great that we’re funding transit. It’s a modest increase over the percentage that we fund transit now. I think. I can’t really tell which buckets go in transit and highways. And all I know is the way we construct our highways and roadways often makes the transit ineffective, if not totally inaccessible. So spending tens of billions of dollars on transit that it’s a death mission to reach is not exciting to me. It all goes together. It’s all part of the same system. And I want to know how that money is spent before I get excited about any total number.

Aaron: So what should happen next? Where should this go? There’s a lot of details to be worked out, there’s legislation to be written. What can you do? What can we do to sort of influence this policy to try to make it better?

Beth Osborne: Well, I’m very enthusiastic about the House’s approach to the bill that they’re moving this week, the Invest Act. I love this bill, not just because of the number totals or the various programs, but because it’s so well tied together. To explain why that is, I should start by explaining what we’ve done poorly in the past, and what the Senate does poorly. We typically take a problem, we create a new small program to fix it, while the big program continues to spit out that problem in much, much bigger numbers. Think about someone in a boat with a big hole in it that’s bailing out the boat, but not as fast as the boat’s going down. That’s our general approach to transportation reform.

Beth Osborne: But what that House bill has done is looked at tightening up the core program while fixing it with new programs. So if we have crumbling roads and bridges, we should require people to focus on maintenance before they build new things they can’t afford to maintain. And the House has some very simple language in there that just says that if you’re going to add to existing infrastructure or build something new, you should have a plan to operate and maintain it throughout its useful life, and you should be making progress on your state of repair goals. Now that is crazy, radical thinking in transportation, but if you told that to a normal person not involved in transportation politics, they’d think, “We don’t do that already?” The answer is no, we don’t. So they’ve got programs for repair of bridges and things like that, but they’re also going to stop the existing program from deepening the problem while repairing the problem.

Beth Osborne: They do this in a bunch of areas. They improve a lot of safety standards. They require states to stop setting what they call regressive targets. Basically, states have the authority right now to set a target for fatalities that is worse than the current results. So they can say we had 800 people killed on our roads in 2020, and our target for 2021 is 825. And this bill says you can’t do that anymore, and calls for different changes in the roadway design to make them safer. We can support that, we can encourage the Senate to do something similar. We can do a lot to remind people that responsible expenditure of federal dollars is not a Democrat or Republican position. It should be a bipartisan position. And the very fact that the Senate bill is bipartisan doesn’t mean that it’s good, it just means that the Senate is full of people that don’t think a lot about the substance of what they’re producing.

Aaron: And it makes me wonder, like, how to grapple with the fact that, you know, here we have this big infrastructure deal being presented to us that really just doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to the aggressive action that we need to transition ourselves off of fossil fuels, to build a new clean energy economy, to address this climate emergency. I mean, it’s 115 degrees in the Pacific Northwest right now. How do we get the US Senate to sort of care about the climate crisis, and to work it into bills like this when they come up?

Beth Osborne: I think that there’s a handful of things we can do. One is not get excited or give them support for coming to an agreement when that agreement is bad. Not to agree to spend a little bit of money to fix a problem that a much bigger program is continuing to make. It is a crazy thing that we would spend $40 billion making roads unsafe while spending $1 billion making roads safer. That’s not a recipe for success, and we shouldn’t apply that to climate. The Senate bill on climate has, I believe, $8 billion for climate that most states can exempt themselves from. That’s a problem. And they can spend significantly more money, tens of billions of dollars in projects that will drive climate emissions up. So $8 billion to drive down and, what, $40 billion to drive climate emissions up? This is not a deal we should support. We should out and out oppose it, no matter how bipartisan it is.

Aaron: So one of the things that was really clear at the press conference announcing this deal was Joe Biden came out and basically said, you know, neither side got everything they wanted in this deal, and that’s what it means to compromise. And then Senator Rob Portman came out and said the same thing. And Kyrsten Sinema.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: Neither side got everything they want in this deal. That’s what it means to compromise.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Portman: We didn’t get everything we wanted.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kyrsten Sinema: No one got everything they wanted in this package. We all gave some to get some.]

Aaron: It’s all about compromise. Nobody ever gets everything they want from federal legislation, and the only way to pass federal legislation is if you compromise. So if you want public transit money, you have to let these other guys have their highway money. Are you sort of suggesting that we should just sort of shut the whole thing down? Like, it’s not worth having any legislation at all because it’s just going to do more harm than good, so forget it?

Beth Osborne: So I start from the position of, will the money go to do things that I support or care about, or will it go to do things that we will regret and will harm the things we care about? I don’t care about the number. If this money is going to be used to dislocate people from a thousand homes in Houston to expand the highway, to gain some people a minute or two in travel time for a couple of years, then I am opposed to spending money to do that. If it’s going to mean building assets with 20 to 50 years of life that will undermine our climate objectives well past the end of my life, I’m not excited about that, and I don’t care that they’re big numbers. In fact, I’m more afraid of their big numbers and their agreement.

Beth Osborne: So again, bipartisan agreement—big numbers or not—if it’s going to do good things, I’m in favor and we should support it. If it’s going to do the things I care about, I’m in favor and I support it. And if it’s going to do things that I oppose and I’m afraid of, then I am opposed to it. And to me, that’s pretty fundamental, but in transportation, it does not seem to be.

Aaron: Let’s just spend a little bit on the politics of it, because almost immediately after this deal was announced, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did the thing that Mitch McConnell sort of always does. You know, and I hate to make anyone listen to any bit of Mitch McConnell audio. So trigger warning, Mitch McConnell here.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mitch McConnell: Now I have no doubt the president is under enormous pressure from some on the left to deliver on a laundry list of radical climate demands. The Democratic leader and the Speaker have already made clear they’ll do whatever it takes to keep their runaway spending train chugging along all summer. And more and more members of their party are having to contort their positions to keep pace with the expectations of the Green New Deal fringe. But really, caving completely in less than two hours? That’s not the way to show you’re serious about getting a bipartisan outcome.]

Aaron: So, you know, it’s like on the other side of this argument, we have this irresistible force of Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans who seem like they’re just gonna kill anything that isn’t what they want. I mean, how do we get the good stuff in this political environment?

Beth Osborne: Well, I don’t think it has to do with this political environment. The Democrats are just as much of a problem as the Republicans in this. This is a statewide elected official problem, not a Republican problem. But think about how effective McConnell has been at so quickly disarming us of all of our priorities. And again, is it a Democratic progressive priority to say that we should maintain what we have before we build new things? Is that what you typically hear out of the big liberal’s mouth? Or is that a very conservative principle?

Aaron: [laughs] Right. Taking care of your stuff seems like literally conservation. It’s conservative.

Beth Osborne: Right. And what Mitch McConnell has done, which is so impressive, is he’s gotten us fighting so hard for more money for a program that does things we don’t like, that we think that’s a win. God bless the man, that’s impressive. We are now fighting like crazy to put vast amounts of money into programs that do things we hate, and we think we’re winning when we do that. And then we’re all going to sit around and say, “Well, because we got a lot of money that will go to things that we don’t like, shouldn’t we give up on more of the things we care about?” And we’re going to twist ourselves in knots on that question. What? How have we gotten ourselves here? I don’t understand that. No, we should not spend more money to build new things we can’t afford to maintain while allowing our existing infrastructure to fall apart. No, we should not spend more money to make the roads more dangerous and have more people die on them. No, we should not. And if that is—if we are going to trade all of that away for more money to do significantly more of the things we don’t like, we should oppose it.

Aaron: Beth, it’s been so great talking to you. This is so informative.

Beth Osborne: Well, I’m glad to hear that. And I think, particularly in this issue, everyone should recognize they have a lot to contribute to this conversation. Your personal story and how you interact with the system is helpful and informative. And you should not assume that it’s understood by every elected—or any elected representative. They really do need to hear it, and they need to hear where the program doesn’t work as it was intended. And we have not done a good enough job of explaining that, and then having a conversation with them about how to fix it. And it’s not just about building new things, it’s about stopping building the old things. And if we can get to that part of the conversation, the shifting away from the things that we know don’t work, along with building new things, then I think we’ll be in a really good place. And there’s an argument for the liberal who might care a lot about that more equitable outcome, and there’s an argument for the conservative that is never going to be excited about spending good money after bad. This can be done.

Aaron: Well, Beth Osborne, executive director of Transportation for America, thank you so much for joining us here at The War on Cars. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Beth Osborne: Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s fun to be on after listening for so long.

Aaron: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks again to Beth Osborne for taking the time to chat with us. If you like what we do at The War on Cars, please become a Patreon supporter. Visit Thewaroncars.org, click “Support us” and join today. As thanks, we’ll send you stickers, plus you’ll get access to exclusive content that can be found nowhere else. A big shout-out to our top Patreon supporters: the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon. And Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.

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Aaron: This episode of The War on Cars was edited by Ali Lemer. It’s produced by me, Aaron Naparstek. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. I’m Aaron Naparstek, and on behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.