Biden’s Jobs Plan Is Big, but Not Big Enough to Revolutionize Housing, Rail, and Broadband

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Joe Biden in a blue collar behind a lectern with Biden for President on it.
Joe Biden at his presidential campaign kickoff in 2019. (Photo by Michael Stokes, Wikimedia Commons)

President Joe Biden released his much anticipated $2.25 trillion dollar jobs and infrastructure plan today. Republican congressional leaders were quick to brand it as an overly large grab bag of progressive priorities, saying that like it was a bad thing. The breath of investments is a strength, but it also means transit and housing investments fall short of what many progressive advocates were seeking.

Two million affordable homes

The plan dedicates $300 billion to social housing aiming to preserve or create two million affordable homes. This works out to $150,000 per unit, suggesting local government and nonprofit matching funds will be needed to hit the target. Some Democratic housing plans have proposed far higher production goals, led by Representative Ilhan Omar’s Homes For All bill seeking to generate 12 million social housing units.

The Covid pandemic has added a tremendous strain on an already strained housing system. Millions of Americans are out of work and relying on eviction moratoriums to stay housed. A rent relief plan to keep folks with back rent from getting evicted alone could be quite expensive. The Biden administration seemed poised to begin investing in public housing once more after four decades of neglect. However, to catch up for those years of disinvestment and to set right the incredible housing injustice caused by centuries of racist housing policies, a large program may be needed.

One positive sign is that President Biden intends to connect the spending to commitments from local governments to ease their apartment bans and anti-affordability zoning and land use restrictions. It will be interesting to see if that provision survives the legislative sausage-making, but it could be a boon to pro-housing advocates. It would build upon the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing policy President Obama enacted on his way out and Trump attacked and dismantled.

By the way, the plan is funded by repealing the Trump corporate tax cuts and seeking to target companies that park their profits in offshore accounts. The $2.25 trillion in investments is spread over eight to ten years. President Biden is promising a companion proposal, the American Families Plan, that would be focused on “social infrastructure” like universal pre-kindergarten, affordable child care, and healthcare reforms. That plan would spend another additional $2 trillion or so and details are expected a few weeks from now.

Amtrak Joe shifts into medium gear

The outlook on transit is a bit murky. The Biden administration said the package would double federal investment in transit and quadruple passenger rail investment — an unprecedented investment in Amtrak that would earn his “Amtrak Joe” moniker. However, since the transit program is mixed in a bucket with every other transportation priority from highways, airports, ports, and so forth, some advocates are worried that transit funding could get diluted and not stretch that far.

Moreover, the passenger rail figures — $80 billion for Amtrak’s repair backlog — aren’t large enough to guarantee a broad buildout of high-speed rail. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is signaled out for upgrades, but more ambitious plans to create a national network of truly high-speed rail would need far larger investments than what’s proposed, as would more regional plans to develop high-speed rail clusters, such as hubs around Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta. Likewise, it’s not the kind of money that gets Cascadia high-speed rail, connecting Seattle north to Vancouver and south to Portland, off the ground. In comparison, Representative Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) high-speed rail bill calls for $205 billion in federal investment.

There are several cross-county corridors in Alfred Twu's ambitious high-speed rail map including LA to Boston, LA to Miami and, going north-south, Tijuana to Vancouver, Monterrey to Chicago, and Miami to Portland, Maine.
Biden’s campaign vision sounded a bit more like ambitious national system maps like Alfred Twu’s map pictured above, rather than more incremental plans only planning high-speed rail in super dense corridors. (Alfred Twu)

Instead, more incremental passenger rail improvements seem to be tabbed, which could also be hugely beneficial, but not necessarily as revolutionary in terms of enticing people out of planes and cars.

On the other hand, the focus on more incremental investments could unlock an era of bus rapid transit rollout that could have a big impact and jumpstart transit ridership in mid-sized and Sun Belt cities where transit share is still pretty anemic. In large cities, funding to backfill existing budgets and add bus rapid transit could help complement and stabilize subways and light rail plans even if this level of investment isn’t going to allow a major buildout of rail transit beyond existing plans. In the Seattle metropolitan area’s case, we’re helped by having an United States Senator who is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee; Senator Patty Murray is fighting to get Sound Transit an extra $1.9 billion to fill budget holes, Mike Lindblom reported. The Biden administration has said $85 billion should flow to transit for system modernization and expansion.

Notwithstanding increased transit investments, cars continue to be a significant area of investment, with $100 billion tabbed for electric vehicle charging infrastructure alone. The highway plan is branded “Fix It First” but the devil is in the details, and leading transportation experts have noted the bill doesn’t preclude the same old lurch into highway expansion that has undermined transportation packages of the past and ensured that America is the top climate polluter on the planet.

Safety and removal of racist freeways

Another positive sign is an acknowledgment of the safety crisis. “More than 35,000 people die in traffic crashes on U.S. roads each year, and millions more are seriously and often permanently injured,” the Biden plan fact sheet states. “The United States has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the industrialized world, double the rate in Canada and quadruple that in Europe. Across cities, suburbs, and rural areas, President Biden’s plan will help parents get to work reliably and affordably, reduce the impacts of climate change for our kids, and make sure fewer families mourn the loss of a loved one to road crashes.”

Likewise, the plan acknowledges the negative health impact of busy highways and the racist legacy of plowing them through urban cores in the first place, most often through communities of color. The plan would invest $20 billion for rectifying those mistakes, potentially through freeway removal in some of the more egregious cases. In other cases, freeway lids to at least put park space and buildings atop gaping freeway trenches could qualify, as Lid I-5 Seattle highlighted.

“Too often, past transportation investments divided communities — like the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans or I-81 in Syracuse — or it left out the people most in need of affordable transportation options,” the fact sheet states. “The President’s plan includes $20 billion for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.”

Unfortunately, Biden spokespeople have still conjured images of congestion relief to sell their plan, as pedestrian safety author, Angie Schmitt noted. Highway investments have a terrible track record of actually solving congestion, as we frequently write about.

Subsidizing electric car owners

On the other hand, the Biden administration seems to see itself in a race with China to win the electric vehicle market and produce more cars. Incentivizing car ownership will undoubtedly conflict with his goals around safety, transit, and ultimately climate, if subsidies don’t also help people afford transit, electric bikes, and housing in walkable neighborhoods, which are all demonstrated to have a much larger impact on shrinking carbon footprint than cars.

“U.S. market share of plug-in electric vehicle (EV) sales is only one-third the size of the Chinese EV market. The President believes that must change,” the fact sheet states. “He is proposing a $174 billion investment to win the EV market. His plan will enable automakers to spur domestic supply chains from raw materials to parts, retool factories to compete globally, and support American workers to make batteries and EVs. It will give consumers point of sale rebates and tax incentives to buy American-made EVs, while ensuring that these vehicles are affordable for all families and manufactured by workers with good jobs. It will establish grant and incentive programs for state and local governments and the private sector to build a national network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030, while promoting strong labor, training, and installation standards.” 

The generous electric car subsidies of the Obama administration have still left the national adoption rate for electric cars under 1%. Plug-in electric cars share of new car sales didn’t crack 1% in the last decaded even with that subsidy. Better electric cars and easier access to charging will increase adoption, but hanging America’s climate action hopes primarily on electric cars is a recipe for failure. Part of why: Car-centered urbanism still locks in sprawl and bad land use decisions. And as long as electric cars stay expensive, this subsidy will flow to the wealthy almost exclusively.

Broadband for all, but how expensive will it be?

Another welcome investment was $100 billion aimed at giving all Americans access to high-speed internet. Again, the initial reaction was a mixed bag. On hand it’s a worthy goal and a good sign that the Biden administration is signaling they won’t just funnel money toward corporations to make it happen, as has failed to deliver in the past. However, the plan doesn’t tackle the issue of the high cost of fast internet (or really any internet) in communities that do have access.

The Biden administration’s hands are somewhat tied since the courts have restricted the Executive’s ability to overrule state restrictions after Obama gave it a go. Still Biden promises to help local and municipal broadband efforts that looked to compete with the monopolies and duopolies run by the Comcasts, Verizons, and AT&Ts of the world.

“President Biden’s plan will promote price transparency and competition among internet providers, including by lifting barriers that prevent municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge,” the plan states.

“The problem: neither the Biden FCC nor broader administration can do much about such state-level restrictions. Previous efforts by the Obama FCC to eliminate state barriers to community broadband were shot down in court,” Karl Bode reported in Vice. “Still, clear support for such efforts is a course change from the GOP, which has repeatedly tried to ban community broadband entirely.” 

Internet and cable providers led by Comcast (which famously claimed its political contributions were so great, it would be too much of a burden to disclose them all) invest an ungodly sum in political campaigns, ensuring they have the ear of lawmakers if not the votes outright. The result is high cost internet and low-quality customer service.

Consumer groups argue that when it comes to U.S. broadband, the problem isn’t just access, but cost,” Bode continued. “Due to limited competition, Americans pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world, most recently showcased by toddlers in Silicon Valley having to huddle around fast food restaurants simply to attend class during COVID lockdowns.”

It remains to seen whether President Biden can crack the code and outmaneuver the powerful internet monopolies to provide universal broadband access and drive down costs. But it’s refreshing to see a president suiting up for the battle.

Update: This article was updated at 4:10pm to add mention of freeway lids and of Rep. Moulton’s high-speed rail bill.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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J M Bush

Okay, all of these ideas sound good–on the surface. However, they all have the same question–WHERE IS THE MONEY? Another question needs to be answered: What about investing in our pedestrian infrastructure? Throughout this country there are thousands of miles of roads with missing or broken sidewalks and crossings. In many of these areas, people who can’t drive because of a disabiligy or can’t afford a private automobile are literally being left behind by local government, state governent and the Biden plan, which is being looked at by Congress–and already being criticized by some members as being “too generous” or ” tax-heavy” or “not enough.” If that’s the case, then improve it. Instead of a $2.25 trillion plan, increase the overall amount to $4.5 trillion (or more), with a “bump” in corporate taxes (with no “off-shoring” of wealth being allowed. If the overall plan is fil\ibustreed in the Senate, so be it…if the GOP won’t let it pass, make it better by INCREASING the money allocated to fix what’s needed to make it work.

Stephen Fesler

There actually is a financing plan for this. It’s mostly from increased corporate tax rates, but Biden is going to let the Republicans wrestle (if they want) for an alternative source or mix so long as they come up with the requisite levels and don’t hit middle- and lower-income families.

But you’re right. There should be a priority for pedestrian projects in the bill. They’re probably in there, but the initial fact sheet was light on specific details and heavy on high level buckets and priorities. We’ll have to wait for the bill to know for sure just how much is actually proposed. Right now walking and biking only gets about a $1 billion per year. If we had $20 billion, that would be something to really talk about, but I doubt it reaches that, unfortunately.

RossB

As you wrote, the devil is in the details with a lot of this. My guess is, the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions (other than taxing them) is to run the buses more often. That isn’t sexy, but it gets the job done. Only time will tell as to whether there will be enough money for that, or whether the money goes into big projects that sound cool but do very little (e. g. San Fransisco to Portland — on a train!).

Douglas Trumm

Battery buses will not excel at long distance routes until the battery technology improves significantly. Here’s some research on rail’s effectiveness curbing emissions: https://www.carbonbrief.org/eight-charts-show-how-aggressive-railway-expansion-could-cut-emissions

I love the idea of a major BRT buildout across the country. If cities are willing to dedicate existing road lanes for it, it could be very cost effective. Rail still has some key advantages in long distance travel including a better user experience and an ability to electrify it.

Last edited 6 months ago by Douglas Trumm
RossB

Sorry I wasn’t clear. I’m not talking buses for long distance routes. I’m talking about buses in the city. This doesn’t have to be BRT. We know, based on studies, that increasing frequency increases ridership. Yet just about every agency — including all of those in Washington State — have buses that are way too infrequent. In Seattle we run buses every 15 minutes and call that “BRT”. 15 minutes sucks! That should be the frequency of coverage routes, not the “special” routes. This is for the premier transit agency in the state — a city that has transit service that is the envy of most of the country, let alone the state. Yet even we don’t run our buses very frequently.

Instead of spending money on high speed rail (that very few will use) spend money on city buses (that lots and lots of people will use). Double the frequency of every bus in United States and it makes a huge difference. Run high speed trains between distant cities and it won’t.

The article you referenced also made a very good point. Instead of focusing on high speed rail (that very few people will use) we should electrify and improve the freight rail system. I’m all for electrification (of both passenger and freight rail). But high speed passenger rail from Portland to San Fransisco is absurd. It will never carry a significant number of people. That is just elite projection. Wealthy people look at that and go “oooh, that looks cool”. But the system should be focused on the masses, not a handful of wealthy people.

Just to be clear, there are a small cluster of places where high speed rail makes sense in this country. But when Americans start discussing high speed rail, they often forget to mention that high speed rail won’t work for most of country. Europe and Japan are densely populated, with huge population centers relatively close to each other. We have some of that — but only a little bit. West of the Rockies, it is pretty much just California.

There are smaller clusters, like Vancouver/Seattle/Portland that are borderline. But it makes way more sense to create pretty fast rail (110 MPH) instead of high speed rail (200 MPH). You get just about the same environmental benefits (nobody flies between the cities unless they are connecting to somewhere else) for a lot less money. That money saved can then be put into things we really need — like good bus service.

Ben

What is the purpose of this piece? I get that the infrastructure proposal that Biden rolled out does not literally do everything that Doug or anyone would want, but that’s true of 100% of public policy. I like science fiction as much as the next guy, but in an actual operating context where the Senate is split 50-50 and the House is very tight, things like: 12 million social housing units instead of 2 million; or $205 billion for high speed rail instead of $80 billion for Amtrak are fanciful.

My read on this is that, given the shape of Congress, it will be a very hard slog to realize just the things in the proposal Biden rolled out. I think that if Biden’s proposal is met with just a shrug from publications like The Urbanist, then all that does is engender apathy and decrease the likelihood that we’ll see progress in the direction that we as progressive urbanists would like.

Douglas Trumm

The purpose is try to honestly assess the situation. Investing $300B in housing will be great if it happens, but more is needed. Both can be true. This wasn’t meant to be a shrug but a call to action to boost the size of the package.

How much harder is a $3T package to pass compared to a $2.25T? It wasn’t just me calling for high speed rail, Biden did on the campaign trail in lofty terms. I think it’s fair to point out when proposals don’t match the campaign plans. I’m still excited about the Amtrak enhancements.

If you’re worried urbanists control the fate of federal legislation, you may want to take a passing glance at history.

RossB

There could be more for housing, but this really isn’t a housing bill. HUD needs a lot of work, and I think Fudge can make the necessary changes to improve a neglected agency. But she is new to the job (with no experience in housing) and it will take her a while to make the structural changes necessary for the money to be put to good use.

As for high speed rail, the situation is similar. No one has spent the time to take a good look at what makes sense for high speed rail, and what doesn’t. You can play politics (you get a train, you get a train, everyone gets a train) or you can play it safe (just sink all the money into the Northeast) but anything in between takes a lot of time and effort to grade. Mayor Pete’s first attempt failed. High speed rail from Portland to San Fransisco is ridiculous.

In contrast, there really are lots of bridges that are falling apart and the engineers know it (we have more than one). Every transit system in the country could use more service. It makes way more sense to spend money on the buses long before it makes sense to spend money on high speed rail.

Douglas Trumm

At $300 billion for housing makes this a housing bill and also suggests housing funding won’t be in the second “social infrastructure” bill. Fudge could be a great HUD secretary but she can only do so much on the social housing creation front without sufficient funding.

I included Twu’s ambitious cross-country HSR map to illustrate the point, not to say literally every line on it makes sense by traditional ROI metrics, as Twu admits too. I covered some of the more ROI-focused national HSR plans and talked about the metrics some have hewn too. One metric that is overlooked but I think could be important indicator of success: how high is the transit ridership in the metro areas on the line? https://www.theurbanist.org/2016/12/07/high-speed-rail/

Cascadia high speed rail makes a ton of sense to me because transit ridership is high (for US standards) in all three major cities on the line and trending the right direction and the alternative of driving between them faces an even greater issue with cost if we were to scale up with widening. Likewise, Amtrak conventional passenger service must compete with a busy freight corridor so likewise can’t scale up indefinitely due to the dearth (and $$) of timeslots.

Biden had to do some of the nut and bolts things like bridge repair because we had neglected them so long. But he did campaign on high speed rail being widespread, not just a Northeast phenomenon. “Biden will develop a plan to ensure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world–for both passengers and freight,” Biden’s climate plans stated. “He will expand the Northeast Corridor to the fast-growing South. Across the Midwest and the Great West, he will begin the construction of an end-to-end high speed rail system that will connect the coasts, unlocking new, affordable access for every American.” More on that here: https://www.theurbanist.org/2020/08/24/bidens-climate-plan-would-launch-green-new-deal-and-high-speed-rail-network/

RossB

Yeah, Biden campaigned on that. He campaigned on a lot of things. But if he is now essentially shifting priorities from high speed rail to transit, then good for him. This won’t please the well-to-do set, but they will get over it.

RossB

Cascadia high speed rail makes a ton of sense to me because transit ridership [between the cities] is high (for US standards)…

You’ve just touched on the core problem, and glossed right over it. Transit ridership is much lower in the US than most of the world. Yet instead of focusing on that, you are focused on something very few people will use.

Consider the Shinkansen, or “bullet train.” Japan has a network of nine high speed rail lines serving 22 of its major cities, stretching across its three main islands. That includes the largest city in the world, as well as other extremely dense cities. It is the busiest high-speed rail service in the world, carrying more than 420,000 passengers on a typical weekday.

That is great, but King County Metro carries about the same number of people every day. Metro! This underfunded system with an outdated network serving a minor city carries as many riders as the greatest high speed rail system in the world.

Yet you look at all that, and your first thought is — we need to build those trains! No dude, we need to run those buses more often. We could double the number of riders on the buses quite easily (just by running them more often, and creating a real network). There is no way we will ever come close to the ridership of the high speed network in Japan.

The infatuation with high speed rail — both locally and nationally — is because it sounds cool, not because it would be cost effective. It is techno-jealousy. We’ve seen the pictures, we can imagine riding the trains, it sounds great. But the fact is, very few people will do that. Personally, I don’t know anyone who would, on a regular basis. I don’t know anyone who travels to Portland or Vancouver every day. In contrast, I take the bus every day, and know lots and lots of people that do.

Even in areas that have a huge amount of demand, high speed rail doesn’t carry that many people. DC dwarfs the size of every city in the Northwest. MARC runs between DC and Baltimore, reaching speeds of 125 MPH. Service is frequent, because the cities aren’t that far apart, and lots of commuters travel between the two cities. Yet it carries only about 40,000 people a day. The woefully underfunded MTA bus systems carries 270,00. This is one of the busiest sections of our busiest rail line — the one that everyone says should be faster. And yet even there it is clear that we should focus on giving folks in Baltimore better bus service before we make the trains faster.

Seattle, Vancouver and Portland are not that big. Building it would be extremely expensive. It would be like California, but without the riders.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t improve the train line. But we already have a plan for that, and it would be a cost effective approach. It would get just about as many riders as high speed rail, for a lot less money. The transit system within the city is far more important than the transit system between cities. We need to get our transit system up to international standards, and the first step is to just run the buses (and trains) more often.

We need to stop focusing on whiz-bang ideas, and focus on what works. If we focus on building “the next build thing”, it is quite likely we will continue to have a crappy system. It will resemble transit in Baltimore. We will have a really nice, really fast connection to another city, but transit within the city — the thing people really depend on, the thing people will really use if it is good — will continue to suck.
Yeah, I know “we can have both”, but I really don’t think we can. Let’s get to the point where every city in America has decent transit before we spend money on borderline high speed rail lines like Vancouver/Seattle/Portland.

Ben

That’s completely fair, and I appreciate the response. I get it, and that was a bad comment on my part. Definitely one I should have left in the “drafts” folder, and I take back the critique.

Ott Toomet

I liked the quick summary of the proposed bill, I also like the analysis (although I do not agree with all of it). I am not sure it that was the original purpose but it does not really matter.

Urbanist is an organization with clear political standpoints. I am not surprised finding these standpoints reflected in this article. It seems to me that you are more interested in analysis of political feasibility. It is a fair and interesting question but I’d say you look for a wrong media outlet.

Ron Swanson

Good to see reform and expansion of EV tax credits is front and center: speeding EV adoption is the most effective non electric generation related climate action we can take right now. The existing system that’s phased out credits for our two biggest domestic EV manufacturers is laughably outdated.

Douglas Trumm

If the EV tax credits are effective, why didn’t more people use them? Where’s the evidence the EV incentives lower emissions significantly?

asdf2

I’ve always had mixed feelings about EV incentives. On the one hand, I like the idea of incentivizing electric cars over gas cars. On the other hand, I don’t like the government directly incentivizing electric cars over no cars.

Overall, I see the EV tax credit as a necessary evil, given that the vast majority of this country’s population lives in areas with terrible or no transit, for whom not owning any car is not even considered as an option; there is no path to getting to carbon neutral without the people in that camp switching from gas gas to electric cars in large numbers.

I don’t think the EV tax credit should remain long term, but I think it is needed in the short term to prop up demand until mass production lowers the base price of an electric car to the point where it’s not needed anymore.

AJ M

EVs are “the climate idol of the unimaginative” and EV subsidies are most an anti-urbanist policy. The fact that you consider EVs the “most effective non electric generation related climate action” shows a stunning lack of imagination. We could better regulate methane; we could run diesel buses more often; we could jack up the taxes on gasoline or aviation fuel – all these would be far more impactful than subsidizing driving.
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/does-subsidizing-electric-vehicles-promote-car-dependency/id1435988964?i=1000515161275