What a National Infrastructure Upgrade Should Be

Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure spending bill is prominent in the news. SD Gov. Kristi Noem was “shocked by how much doesn’t go into infrastructure”, then hinted that she didn’t know the definition of infrastructure. In fairness, infrastructure can be a broadly used term, and would be better understood if categorized into “public” and “private” infrastructure.

People think of roads and bridges when they hear “infrastructure”, but Biden’s bill goes far beyond that!

Broadly defined, “Infrastructure” is “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise”. Typically, government has been the carrier, or initiator, after which private forces have been the users or enhancers. Examples are large highways, dams, energy projects or airports (too big or risky for private investment) which government initiates for the future best interests of the country. Private contractors build these facilities, which are subsequently used by private cars, buses, planes, water or energy companies, and sometimes local utilities or municipalities. This relationship has worked well for water and energy (think back to large publicly financed dams of the 30s), aircraft (think of government nurturing of the aircraft industry and public airports) and travel (think of the Interstate Freeway system, initiated in the 50s). Currently, Democrats want to make as much infrastructure “public” as possible, while Republicans will try to “privatize”. Public interests insure service for all (sometimes at a loss) while Private interests tend to produce “milk runs” (profitable services that serve a more limited geographic market). Infrastructure investment should follow three rules: a) Be viable future technology so that investment is not “leapfrogged” by another technology (wasting money) b) provide the greatest good for the greatest number (broad service while not running at a loss) and c) provide the best opportunity to be run by private forces.

A short parable about “leapfrogging” is told about Kenya, which once had a tiny hardwired telephone service, limited primarily to Nairobi. By the time Kenyans were ready for a national phone service in the early 2000s, they were fortunate to be able to go straight to “wireless” technology, thereby not wasting precious money on soon-to-be-obsolete hard-wired phone service. With new technologies emerging at a fast pace, any new infrastructure risks “white elephant” status in a few decades. Therefore, each must be carefully considered and be more than careless “make work”.

Using the “government that governs best governs least” rule, and the precedent of great civilizations (the cooperation of public/private forces notorious in Ancient Greece and Rome, Imperial Britain, and 20th Century US), here are my calls on various infrastructure ideas:

This Shanhai Maglev train is an example of many that have been built overseas. Though rail in general may be threatened by inflexibility, pandemics, environmental impacts, costs, and crime, the Maglev concept may someday be used for flexible vehicles (cars and buses) with great energy savings due to decreased rolling resistance. Is Maglev therefore due additional funding in the Biden Infrastructure bill?

Biden Infrastructure Bill, Total Cost: $2 Trillion plus

Railroads (Biden Plan, $165 Billion, $85 Billion Public Transit): Biden’s plan earmarks $80 billion for Amtrak, plus money for several high speed rail projects. The conventional logic is that rail is efficient for trips of 30–300 miles, while cars are efficient for less than 30 miles, air travel better for >300 miles. The problem with rail is that routes are fixed and expensive, while auto/air travel is flexible/potentially less expensive. Rail can also have high environmental impact (considering the difficulty of anything crossing a rail). “Cars” may well evolve to be smaller/smarter things that can mimic trains on freeways. Meanwhile “planes” may evolve to be much cleaner and more flexible, with larger payloads (carrying capacity). Frankly, the rich are close to travelling around in personalized “air cars”. Growing crime and pandemic problems make public transit less appealing. Lacking a guarantee of high ridership makes rail travel an investment risk (whereas “cars” or “planes” tend to have more crime/pandemic protection, and aren’t committed to taking fixed trips). All of this, I’m afraid, puts rail in danger of being an investment “dog”. As much as we want to love Amtrak or California High Speed Rail, the former carries mostly retirees/foreign tourists and has to share with freight lines to be economically viable (slow), while the latter is quite expensive and not much better than air travel. Ironically, Biden is about to put money into California Amtrak AND CA High Speed Rail, which compete (?) Perhaps Biden should continue to marginally fund the two high speed “milk runs” (SF to LA and DC to NY) and forget about Amtrak, which should live or die on its own.

Roads and Bridges (Biden Plan, $115 Billion, $50 Billion “Infrastructure Resiliency”, $20 Billion “Road Safety”, $20 Billion “Underserved Neighborhoods” ): Everyone agrees that deteriorating roads and bridges need repair. Less certain is whether new routes should be funded. There may also be some “don’t spend good money after bad” logic as our current roadway system might be “leapfrogged” in some fashion (in other words, why fix a bridge that no one will be using in twenty years?)

With the advent of electric and/or hydrogen “smart cars”, this is a golden opportunity to rethink the transportation system. Honestly, in the snow/ice regions of the US, bridge decks rot every 20–30 years (due to salt use) and have to be replaced. Concrete roadways last up to 40 years, but have a high first-cost and are again subject to salt attack. Asphalt used on roads needs to be replaced or resurfaced every 10–15 years. Meanwhile, robotic vehicles and telecommuting may seriously change transportation patterns. Look for traffic patterns to stabilize in the future, while vehicles get smaller (a chance to narrow lanes from 12’ to 8’ and increase traffic density?) More vehicles may “hover” in the future, or become like drones. Roadways may become maglev capable, perhaps allowing for either rubber tire or magnetic levitation as the case demands. Tunnels (always expensive) may be preferred over bridges. All considered, bridges on major routes should be rebuilt using greener concrete, corrosion resistant steel and waterproof coatings (polyesters and methacrylates), roads on major routes rebuilt with concrete/coatings instead of asphalt. Pilot maglev rail or highway projects should be considered. Minor routes should be “phased out” of the Federal system, as they may be of limited future use. Private toll road operation should be considered for some routes.

Electric car charging stations are in the Infrastructure Bill-shouldn’t these be privately funded?

Electric Cars (Biden Plan, $174 Billion): Excuse me, but aren’t electric vehicles on the private side, with consumer demand ready to pay for them (provided costs come down and ranges are extended)? The portion of this that might be tax-dollar appropriate are a electric car charging and hydrogen filling network (a basic one to get us started, and without the “proprietary” Tesla-only rechargers). The $174 billion seems a big overreach, since “replacing government vehicles with electric vehicles” could very well get leapfrogged (why not wait until electrics are better/cheaper/faster)? The government risks having a bunch of electric “Ford Pintos” on their hands in a few years, if they’re not careful. Why not shuttle more of this money to airports (especially), waterways, roads and bridges? Where is the attention given to the hydrogen fuel cell industry?

Airports (Biden Plan, $25 Billion): This seems too-small an amount, for something as critical to our transportation futures. Aircraft may well be getting cleaner, faster, bigger, and are much more adaptable than rail transit. They even beat rail in “passenger miles per gallon of fuel” in many instances. Futuristic aircraft will be battery hybrid on the small end, and perhaps hydrogen fuel cell powered on the large end. Many will “hover” on take off and landing, so as to not required large landing strips (the military already has such craft). Meanwhile, SpaceX and others may be developing a kind of transcontinental rocket travel. Shouldn’t we invest more heavily in redesigning airport and airport infrastructure thusly?

The military utilizes hovering aircraft (see also VTOLs). Could the same concept be used for a clean commercial aircraft, thereby eliminating long runways and expanding landing sites? Is this worth Federal subsidy?

Ports, Waterways, Ferries (Biden Plan, $17 Billion): This also seems low, when you consider that boats carry a great deal of container freight, can be a great way to carry rail or car traffic (much cheaper than a bridge).

Quality of Life at Home (Biden Plan, $650 Billion): This is where Biden may have gone “off the rails” and given air to the Noem-like complaints. Portions are a) $100 Billion for Broadband Internet (isn’t private investment, 5G etc already doing a good job of this?), b) $100 Billion Upgrade and Build Schools (well, ok but build much better security into them and acknowledge that much of even K12 is going online?) c) $213 Billion for the retrofit of 2 million homes and commercial properties (this is vague, but already sounds like a government boondoggle). The Pandemic “Zoom Boom” may naturally trend towards converting overbuilt commercial to new residential (ie developers are talking about abandoned shopping mall conversions) , and in any case private market forces usually dictate new housing patterns and amenities. This sounds like Biden pandering to minorities by buying them new plumbing and electrical, when they should probably just move to greener pastures, like from blighted Flint to a modern housing complex in the Southwest where there are more jobs anyway?) d) $111 Billion for “clean water”…please explain to me the exact definition of “clean water”? We were all blessed with pristine surface and groundwater 100 years ago, and have systematically abused and compromised the sources.

Rhino home tap water filtration system-drinking water at the tap, a more basic (and cheaper) water treatment level for bath/laundry?

To me, the future of water is for everyone to buy a reverse osmosis system at the tap (to distill water), and lime treatment/water softening/ultraviolet treatment for everything else (bathing, laundry) as its too expensive going forward to treat everything to “drinking water quality” given increasingly imperfect sources (lakes with parasites? Fracking contamination, etc) and imperfect delivery (aging metal, asbestos, concrete pipes). I’m afraid Biden will try to prop up a sinking ship and should instead focus on new water sources (reclaimed water, desalinization, lower ag use ala more drip irrigation/fruits/veggies, less meat/dairy) e) $100 Billion to improve the electrical grid…now we’re talking! HVDC for long distance power transmission would have solved the Texas cold weather power disaster (by sharing renewable energy among regions). HVDC extension is a large part of extending the viability of renewables, by offsetting the “time of use” problem without expensive energy storage f) $158 billion for a combination of upgrading hospitals, childcare, community colleges, oil well/mine cleanup, cleaner energy plants, public housing, federal buildings, “new workers in public lands” (this seems to have much of the “devil in the details”, as the $40 billion for “public housing” alone, plus $10 billion in “federal building modernization” and $10 billion in “new public land workers” (huh?) seem to have pork written all over them)

There is definitely a need for low income housing (for the working poor, seniors, and others, such as the San Jose affordable housing project above), but is this Infrastructure, does this create dependency, and shouldn’t government create incentives for privately-funded affordable housing? Is Biden creating another unpopular “government program”?

Caregiving for Elderly and Disabled (Biden Plan, $450 Billion): This also seems an overly generous giveaway to a program that should be largely private-funded, and a stretch to be called infrastructure. It is also a rather sneaky Medicare expansion and “minimum wage adjustment” to $12/hr for many minority caregivers. I’m all for a minimum wage increase to $12/hr, but it would seem more government appropriate to give block grants to States to build new Senior facilities with matching local funds, or private funds. This may be a classic “fish vs fishing pole” thing, as there’s a danger that after the government funds run out, developers will stop building Senior housing. The government should initiate the concept, let the builders/users benefit from the follow-through. Low-income and Senior housing will need to be high-concept (spacious with amenities, close to transit) but also cheap. To me this suggests conversion of large commercial structures and possibly large 3d housing concepts in the future. (Stein,2021)

Research, Development, Manufacturing (Biden Plan, $300 Billion): This includes some promising and other vague ideas. On the plus side (in my opinion) are the $50 Billion NSF for new manufacturing, $46 billion clean energy manufacturing, $35 billion climate technology, $48 billion workforce development, $40 billion “upgrading laboratories”, $31 billion “small business R&D”, $30 billion pandemic prevention (all invest in future technology and create internationally competitive jobs). More questionable are $52 rural clean energy, $50 billion “domestic industrial monitoring”, $40 billion “dislocated workers”, and $58 in other miscellaneous programs (more pork?) (Zaracina,Garrison,Petras,2021)

How will Biden pay the $2 Trillion+ bill?: Biden proposes raising corporate tax rates from 21% to 28% (it was as high as 39% prior to 2017). He also wants to increase the minimum tax on US Multinational Corporations to 21%. He believes that these two taxes will pay for the program in 15 years. There should also be a resulting “economic stimulus” that will put people to work and create more national products that can be sold domestically and abroad (hopefully enough to pay for Trump and Biden’s extremely generous pandemic relief handouts). A large omission/missed opportunity in this bill is a carbon tax that could pay for carbon capture or emerging clean technologies, something like $50/ton of CO2 emitted. (Walsh,2021)

In short, much of this bill is not really infrastructure, and invests in items ordinarily funded by the private sector. There seems to be several “end runs” here, the expansion of Medicare, raising of minimum wages, and funneling of money to inner city minorities and rural tribes (all of which has given Democrats and government a black eye in years past). If the idea is to jumpstart the United States tech economy ala 30s FDR, I’m for it, and if it’s a giveaway that creates dependency and encroaches upon private sector I’m against. A large part of the bill seems more of a “jobs” and “minority reparation” bill, which would be nice if our Country wasn’t running such high deficits. Much of this bill is likely to be trimmed by the Manchin/Sinema moderates for not being “bipartisan” enough, if it goes through the reconciliation process. The bill should also meet the “what part of this technology is saleable overseas” test, as we will want to come out of this great expenditure competitive with China on the world stage. Although Kristi Noem didn’t exactly say it right, there is indeed much in the bill that is not truly “infrastructure”. (Moran,2021)

Enjoy these other Vern Scott Energy and Transportation Articles:

Energy Efficiency, Not Warming, will Sell Renewables

CO2 Contribution will Destroy our Planet-or Maybe Not!

Fighting Cow Flatulence

Affordable 3D Printed Structures

Who Will Invent the Catalytic Converter of the Global Warming Age?

The Far-Off Future of Renewables

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health

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