Roadblocks may be ahead for President Biden’s infrastructure projects

President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ bill did not make it through the Senate before the holiday break and faces more trouble as Senator Joe Manchin says he will not vote for the $2 trillion social spending bill. But the administration has won approval for it’s massive infrastructure plans. Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield joins to discuss what history teaches us about politics and infrastructure and what challenges are ahead.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    President Biden's proposed Build Back Better bill did not make it through the Senate before the holiday recess and faces even more trouble as Senator Joe Manchin announced his opposition today to the close to $2 trillion in spending.

    That means the administration is facing the possibility it will achieve only one of it's two giant spending goals — the infrastructure bill that did win approval this year — designed to improve everything from roads and bridges to broadband internet.

    But NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield has some examples from history that don't bode well for the actual construction and completion of those projects any time soon.

    He joined us recently from Santa Barbara.

    Jeff, what's interesting about infrastructure is that America, more than many other countries, help define the scale and scope of large projects that we could take on. I mean, you're talking everything from the Hoover Dam to the highway infrastructure system. What's different now?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Yeah, you're absolutely right. This used to be a point of pride. I mean, go back to the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad. Hoover Dam, the biggest public works project in history at the time in the middle of the Depression finished two years ahead of schedule and under budget. And we just don't seem to be able to do that anymore, literally.

    The New York Times recently catalog from one end of the country to the other massive delays and cost overruns. The Long Island Railroad connection to Grand Central Terminal now estimated years late at three or four times the original cost. Out here in California back in 2008, the voters approved a high speed railroad from L.A. to San Francisco, right? That is now supposedly supposed to be finished last year at $30 billion. It's now projected to be finished maybe in 12 years, at a cost of at least $100 billion, the first link, from Bakersfield to Fresno. Honolulu's rail system is years behind schedule, and we're seeing this over and over again. And so anybody who thinks that this infrastructure bill in a relatively short amount of time is going to produce better transportation, better grids, they're in for a very rude awakening.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are there things from all these different projects that you just rattled off in common when it comes to what is costing us so much more? Why the delays and what are we not learning from these mishaps?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Well, one of the things that's happened is that there is now an enormous superstructure of reviews and rights of individuals to challenge these projects. It is certainly true that many highways we now know ripped through neighborhoods, particularly poor Black neighborhoods in inner cities. So now neighborhoods have a chance to demand reviews. They can go to court and sue. You try to run a rail line, say, from Penn Station out to Kennedy Airport, every neighborhood can challenge that and say well as environmental damage. The air pollution will get worse, traffic delays will increase, and that has caused enormous delays, which increases the cost.

    The other thing is these original cost estimates are almost always wrong, sometimes deliberately. They just want the number to get the ball rolling. And then there are the kinds of things that happened, like in Honolulu, that rail system, the planners suddenly discover that the wheels and the rails are half an inch apart. So there's just a continuing parade of these delays and cost overruns.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, this piece of legislation was called bipartisan. The word itself seems a stranger to American politics in the past decade or so. How much does politics play into this?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    I think it's another example of where polarization has. I'll use the word infected almost every aspect of our public life. Just in the last few months, when the Senate passed the infrastructure bill, 40 percent of the Senate Republicans voted for it. Few months later, it became a hot-button political issue among Republicans. Only 15 percent of House Republicans voted for it. So yes, no matter what the issue is, you'd think, Hey, you know what? We can improve the grid. We can improve rural broadband. It becomes infected with politics.

    And I should mention another issue, inflation. We hit the biggest inflation rate in 40 years. That will inevitably drive up the cost of every construction project. Because everything from steel to wages increases, state and local governments may be much more reluctant to put in their share of the cost. And as a general notion, it's going to make any infrastructure project the target and people say, Well, with inflation, we just can't afford it, not to mention the fact that you know how you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, you can't build infrastructure without disruption.

    So a year from now, it's much more likely that we're going to be seeing torn up roads and closed bridges and train delays as these infrastructure projects begin to get built.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeff Greenfield joining us from Santa Barbara, California, thanks so much.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Thank you, Hari.

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