Can Biden Build a Bridge to Fix America’s Infrastructure Problems?

As the president seeks to spend billions to fix the nation’s aging roads and bridges, a long-running project along North Carolina’s Outer Banks illustrates the complexities of transportation infrastructure.

The Marc Basnight Bridge sprawls out from the Outer Banks mainland into the Oregon Inlet. (Courthouse News Photo / Brad Kutner)

KITTY HAWK, N.C. (CN) — After being stuck inside for the last year millions of vacationers are expected to cross the Currituck Sound into North Carolina’s Outer Banks this summer.

Gaining access to the barrier islands’ 200 miles of sandy beaches and preserved lands where the Wright brothers launched the first successful motor-operated airplane requires visitors to cross over the Wright Memorial Bridge. And while they enjoy the area’s legendary sunshine and cool breezes, what visitors may not realize as they drive from the Oregon Inlet, down through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and along the spine of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is they’re heading into a perfect infrastructure storm: Tourism in the area relies upon a 50-year old bridge system and coast-adjacent roadways that have been ravaged by hurricanes and sea-level rise.

It’s a problem echoed across the country, and one that President Joe Biden has promised to address. He’s proposed a massive infrastructure plan, including billions over the next five years according to a budget plan released Friday, to fix the nation’s aging bridge and road system. 

But as the history of infrastructure projects in the Outer Banks region illustrates, it’s not an easy problem to solve, given financial and environmental concerns, regulatory battles and a historically change-adverse Congress.

In the 1990s, when the mix of roads and bridges across the Oregon Inlet hit its 30-year lifespan, lawmakers began to discuss how to address its failings. Complaints from locals about the loss of access to certain beach fronts, threats to wildlife refuges and many finished — but never utilized — environmental impact statements plagued the project as the Oregon Inlet Bridge began to fall apart. 

“The bridge lands on a barrier island that is breaking apart in the face of climate change and sea level rise,” said Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices. “It’s also a wildlife refuge.” 

“You couldn’t pick a project that brings in more environmental considerations in terms of potential impacts,” he added. 

Strife continued for decades as the priorities of locals, environmentalists and state and federal governments collided. One dispute landed in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where, after questioning the bridge’s planning process, Carter’s group won some concessions related to feasible, more environmentally friendly construction options.

That appeal ended in a settlement and the creation of the now two-thirds complete plan of three bridges along and above the 18 miles of protected coastlines.  

The first bridge is the recently finished Marc Basnight Bridge, which was selected by American Infrastructure magazine as its 2020 “Bridge of the Year” for being “visually superior” to its predecessor as well as having a 100-year life span and impressive climate resilience.  

The third leg, known as the Rodanthe bridge, will bypass some of the protected land but still allow for travel to some of Pea Island’s precious dunes. 

The middle bridge is called the Captain Richard Ethridge Bridge, also known as the New Inlet Bridge, sub-named after the water crossing it passes over, which was punched open by Hurricane Irene in 2012. 

It’s a temporary bridge to still allow access to Pea Island and could be removed if money becomes available to link the Basnight and the Rodanthe bridges. 

“The public wants a reliable transportation corridor, it comes back to that balance; providing safe transport while having access to protected areas,” said Pablo Hernandez, resident engineer for North Carolina’s Department of Transportation Manteo office. He’s been in the business of bridge building since 1999 and has overseen the construction of the collection of Oregon Inlet bridges since the late 2000s.

A sign indicates where protected lands start as construction is underway at the Rodanthe Bridge. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Kutner)

It took about two years to finish the Basnight bridge and the Rodanthe bridge is looking to follow a slightly longer timeline. Hernandez estimated about 100 to 150 people a day work on the projects when construction is in full swing and companies from around the country bid for contracts to manage the process. 

The two larger bridge projects cost $440 million with 80% of the money coming from federal aid and the rest from state fuel taxes, vehicle registrations and other fees and monies collected by the state’s transportation agency.

As Hernandez looked out at the mammoth concrete pillars that make up one half of the Rodanthe bridge, he talked about how the actual construction of the bridges occurs; with a temporary parallel bridge built alongside the ongoing project to support a kind of assembly line that builds additional segments.

“We have to build a bridge in order to build a bridge,” he said.

As much as this idea of “bridge building” consumes Hernandez, so, too, is it on the president’s mind as he pushes for a bipartisan solution to what would be a record setting infrastructure investment. 

“These aren’t Republican bridges, Democratic airports, Republican hospitals or a Democratic power grid,” Biden said in early April of his then-$2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill, the American Jobs plan. He’s also promised “millions” of jobs for people like those who designed, formed the parts, and finally built and stitched together the Outer Banks bridge project. 

But many say any true fix to the nation’s infrastructure woes will require a dramatic paradigm shift. 

“We need to prioritize which investments make sense in a changing environment,” said Alice Hill, the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment with the Council on Foreign Relations. 

She pointed to the hallmarks of the climate crisis — sea level rise, stronger winds and storms, greater heat — as the most important considerations for any future infrastructure funding. 

And in the Biden administration Hill appears to have found an ally; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has not been subtle about the importance environmental concerns should play in any plan Congress approves. 

“I’ve heard it said that the bill should be about roads and bridges and not about climate change,” Buttigieg said of Biden’s plan which allocates billions to address a wide range of climate issues. “I would compare that to drawing up plans for a new restaurant with no plans for health, safety or cleanliness.” 

Most of the headline grabbing investments in Biden’s plan include earmarks for electric vehicle charging stations, mine reclamation, a more efficient power grid and other long debated ideas

But Hill, who worked in President Barack Obama’s administration as an advisor on environmental resilience policy, hopes Biden will use his authority to ensure climate change is part of whatever infrastructure spending materializes

“I hope we can have better risk communication,” she said of ways to help get such spending over the finish line in the face of Republican resistance.

But Republicans in the House and Senate are increasingly uninterested in high cost legislation let alone addressing climate change.

“Less than 6% of this massive proposal goes to roads and bridges,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said shortly after Biden announced his plan, a concern his party members have echoed. He’s also offered up an infrastructure plan totalling just under $928 billion. 

“We believe this delivers on what President Biden told us in the Oval Office, and that is to try and reach somewhere near $1 trillion in an eight-year period of time that would include our baseline spending,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito following the release of the Senate Republican plan. 

In the House, Republicans offered the STARTER Act, a $400 billion bill which aims to prioritize “proven programs.”

“Our bill will focus on core infrastructure programs — like fixing our roads and bridges — rather than diluting our limited resources by creating numerous new programs and mandates,” wrote Representative Sam Graves, R-Mo.

Graves called the Republicans’ proposals “the largest percentage increase for these programs in the last quarter-century,” compared to past bipartisan reauthorization efforts that supported the federal roadway’s piggy bank, the Highway Trust Fund. 

The funding of the 65-year-old Highway Trust Fund has been the basis of federal infrastructure spending since its inception. Designed to support state-level transportation projects, Paul Lewis, vice president of policy at Eno Center for Transportation, said states have come to rely on the Highway Trust Fund, but it has encountered financial roadblocks. 

The pot is dwindling, because one of the fund’s largest sources of revenue is the stagnant fuel tax, Lewis said. The tax was last adjusted in 1993 to 18.4 cents on the gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents for a gallon of diesel. Inflation, paired with increased fuel economy, has ironically stunted the reserve. 

“Congress does not want to cut funds going to states, rather they increase, but they are loath to increase any revenues,” Lewis said. 

This funding is key to maintaining the nation’s roadways and Biden has already signaled a willingness to separate his infrastructure priorities into two efforts: one to address the trust fund and another to address jobs and climate change. 

But the president’s trust fund reallocation might differ from past stop-gap reauthorization efforts; instead of funds going to new capital construction projects, Biden hopes to see the money used to “fix it first.” 

Lewis said “fix it first,” which stresses repairing existing infrastructure before building something new, would amount to a game-changing shift for infrastructure spending under any administration, but he also admitted it could face hurdles because members of Congress like to go home to their districts and say “look what I brought home from Washington.” 

“It doesn’t always have the same sizzle as adding something new, but the truth is we’ve got to be doing both,” Buttigieg said at a Bloomberg Philanthropies event in March,.

Representatives might want something new to show off, but some are already dealing with catastrophic infrastructure failures at home. 

Lewis pointed to the nearly 60-year-old Brent Spence Bridge, which crosses the Ohio River between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s faced multiple closures as it continues to deteriorate with age. Lewis said a replacement project has a nearly $2.5 billion price tag while the budget for Kentucky’s Department of Transportation — partially funded by the federal trust fund — is less than $2 billion. 

“You’re talking about spending on one bridge more than the agency’s entire annual budget,” Lewis said. “This isn’t just in Kentucky and Ohio, these more than 50-year-old bridges are all over the place.”

Biden promised new infrastructure funding would go towards “the ten most economically significant bridges in the country in need of reconstruction” but has not specified which bridges he actually hopes to target. 

“It’s not that people don’t want to replace them, they just don’t have the money to spend,” Lewis added, stressing the list of possible and “economically important” bridges is long. 

The southern half of the Rodanthe Bridge under construction. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Kutner)

State agencies are accustomed to their transportation plans being upended by funding issues. The Outer Banks bridge project, for example, was originally pitched as one massive 17-mile stretch before being split into three over fear of dollar signs. 

“Building the project two miles west would have allowed the use of floating equipment with less environmental impacts, but the bridge would have to be much longer and more expensive,” said Hernandez of the original hopes of the Oregon Inlet fix which already cost nearly half a billion dollars and still bisects protected land. 

Some stakeholders suggest Congress put limits or attach requirements on the funds they send to states, but that idea runs contrary to the federal legislative body’s history of infrastructure funding efforts. 

“States have pretty wide authority on how they select projects, as long as it’s on that federal highway network,” Lewis, whose Eno Center has been studying transportation issues for 100 years, said. “They’re generally not allowed to toll, but otherwise state highway departments are generally in the driver’s seat.”

Hill says federal intervention over state spending could help address climate change. She argues allowing states to pick and choose their projects amounts to a “moral hazard” that often creates larger problems for taxpayers. 

“We still fund new development in areas of known risk,” she said, noting the idea of building along water can increase tax bases due to the more valuable and scenic views, but it comes with increased flood risks and other natural disasters the American people have to help clean up through federal emergency funds. 

“We need to help regions make better choices,” Hill added. “If they want to go forward, don’t ask the federal government to underwrite it.”

The Rodanthe Bridge under construction. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Kutner)

Another solution pitched by Republicans is to limit regulations and fees to help speed up, ease and reduce the cost of construction. 

“If you don’t do permitting reform, you could do a $5 trillion highway bill, and the only people who will get a job are the lawyers, the environmental groups and the bureaucrats,” said Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan in April of the inevitable permitting battles some projects could face.

Victor Barbour, director of government relations for Carolina Association of General Contractors, represents about 800 contractors in the mid-Atlantic. He argues environmental impacts are often overblown, and there’s no reason to believe contractors have a desire to harm the environments they’re working in. 

“Environmental concerns can be addressed effectively,” he added, before saying the problems he runs into stem from the process and procedures for getting permits to begin with.

Barbour said President Donald Trump’s effort to reduce federal review and public comment periods, long-complained about by industry groups, was a good move. 

“Time is the environmental group’s friend,” he argued.

But Nat Mund, director of federal affairs at the Southern Environmental Law Center, pushed back on the permitting theory.

“We need to make sure we’re investing taxpayer money wisely while impacting the environment as little as possible,” he said.

Biden’s “fix it first” plan might aid, or circumvent entirely, the permitting  process, as well. Lewis said existing projects can get categorical exclusions from parts of the review process as their impacts have already been assessed.  

“Any kind of project that goes over a body of water still requires a lot of authorizations, and there’s a way to streamline the permitting process, but that’s usually not the biggest barrier to get things done,” he said.

As the Biden administration nears the middle of its first year in office any kind of infrastructure overhaul would be welcome to those who traverse the country’s roads and bridges and boost his chance at reelection. But its failure could harm both just the same. 

Even if the final version of an infrastructure bill returns to reauthorization norms, Lewis is still intrigued by the talking points coming from the President’s team addressing climate change in the context of infrastructure.

“Whether or not this bill passes, the conversation will have shifted,” he said.

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