During his Monday Oval Office meeting with Republican lawmakers to seek GOP support for his $2 trillion infrastructure bill, Joe Biden pushed back on the idea that the meeting was no more than bipartisan “window dressing.” The president calls his plan “a historic investment” that will redress America’s “crumbling infrastructure” and says he’s willing to negotiate. But a recent slip by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg reveals that what the Biden administration means by infrastructure is not at all what the American people think it means.
Mr. Buttigieg is one of the five cabinet secretaries the president has designated to sell the plan to the American people. In an interview last week with TheGrio.com, he declared “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” and that this racism was a “conscious choice,” not “just an act of neglect.” If this is truly what Mr. Buttigieg and the administration believe, the trillions they are about to spend will almost certainly end up going less to actual infrastructure needs than some as-yet-to-be defined measure of “equity.”
Perhaps Mr. Buttigieg has a case. If so, he and the president should be more forthright in detailing exactly what the administration means when it says the American Jobs Plan “prioritizes addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice.” Is this limited to targeting “40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities”? What other agendas might they be piling on here?
Because when most Americans hear the word infrastructure, they think of physical structures—roads, bridges, airports, power lines—with clear operational benefits. Infrastructure projects of this sort are popular because people can at least see something tangible for their tax dollars. The administration understands this, which is why, even though roads and bridges are only a fraction of this bill, whenever its salesmen get in trouble pitching it, that’s right where they run.
Mr. Buttigieg’s appearance on “Fox News Sunday” is a good example. Host Chris Wallace opened by hammering the secretary for not being “straight” with the American people in claiming the U.S. is ranked 13th globally for infrastructure. (He later also forced Mr. Buttigieg to concede that his estimate that the bill would create 19 million new jobs is not true. The honest estimate is closer to 2.7 million.)
So what did Mr. Buttigieg do? He quickly retreated to roads and bridges.
“You don’t need an engineering report to know that driving on American roads, they’re not the way they should be,” he told Mr. Wallace. “Our bridges need work.”
Which leads us to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s claim that only 6% of the spending in this bill deals with roads and bridges. A Washington Post fact checker took the Republican leader to task, saying that while the claim is technically accurate, it is misleading because it ignores other spending that could also be reasonably described as infrastructure.
Here’s how the “fact check” put it: “From roads, bridges and airports to railways, ports, water systems, the electric grid and high-speed broadband, about one-quarter to half of the plan is dedicated to transportation and utilities, depending on how you count.” Another way to say the same thing is that from half to three-quarters of this $2 trillion infrastructure bill is going to none of the things normally considered infrastructure.
As for Mr. Buttigieg’s racist highways, he is simply repeating an old progressive article of faith. As Steven Malanga explains in the Autumn 2020 issue of City Journal, these critics believe that the rise of the interstate highway system “prompted ‘white flight’ to the suburbs, while stranding poor minorities in urban neighborhoods disfigured by the highways that bisected them.”
Some now want these highways torn down. Mr. Malanga wonders whether federal highways will soon take their place alongside Confederate generals targeted for destruction by mobs.
Now, there’s no doubt that some of the massive federal infrastructure investments of the 1950s and ’60s were unwise and did more harm than good. In fact, that’s the whole reason conservatives have always been skeptical about large, centrally planned government projects.
But the truth is more complex than the progressive narrative holds. Flight to the suburbs started long before the interstate highways, as the rise of the automobile gave ordinary Americans the means to indulge their preference for living in small towns over more densely packed cities. Progressives have never liked cars, and it’s surely no coincidence that this bill allocates $165 billion for public transit and rail against only $115 billion to fix and modernize the roads and bridges Americans drive on—certainly not to expand them.
Back when Barack Obama was touting his own $800 billion stimulus bill in 2009, it too was initially popular. Scarcely a year later he was forced to admit that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” The good news for Mr. Buttigieg is that he will never face that embarrassment with this bill. Because so much of what he’s touting as major infrastructure doesn’t involve shovels at all.