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EDITORIAL: The Biden infrastructure money pit

Members of the Biden administration have spent the past few weeks in self-congratulatory mode after the $1.25 trillion infrastructure bill made it through Congress. With the White House besieged by bad news on a number of fronts, President Joe Biden is gambling that he can spend his way to higher poll numbers.

“We’re going to reduce congestion,” Mr. Biden told The New York Times. “We’re going to address repair and maintenance backlogs, deploy state-of-the-art technologies and make our ports cleaner and more efficient.”

But much like former President Barack Obama’s promise of “shovel-ready” infrastructure creating immediate employment growth was an optimistic fantasy, Mr. Biden has also exaggerated the economic impact of his spending binge. If there’s one certainty, it is this: Most of the large “infrastructure” projects in the bill will cost much more and take far longer to get off the ground — if they ever do — than promised.

“The job ahead carries enormous risks that the projects will face the same kind of cost, schedule and technical problems that have hobbled ambitious efforts from New York to Seattle,” the Times reported last week, “delaying benefits to the public and driving up the price tag that taxpayers ultimately will bear.”

One major reason for this is the corpulent bureaucratic state — which, ironically, Mr. Biden seeks to make even more obese. Another is the litigious nature of environmental groups — a key Biden constituency. The infrastructure bill has spawned a task force designed to ensure that projects move forward in an efficient manner, but members will likely be powerless in the face of overwhelming red tape.

But of equal concern is the fact that proponents of ambitious projects routinely low-ball costs, overstate economic benefits and downplay challenges in order to generate support. “A lot of projects are not delivering what they promised to deliver,” Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at the University of Oxford, told the Times. Mr. Flyvbjerg’s analysis of scores of projects around the world concluded that “92 percent of them overran their original cost and schedule estimates, often by large margins,” the Times reported.

High-speed and light-rail boondoggles in California and Hawaii are just two egregious examples.

Willie Brown, the former powerful speaker of the California Assembly, explained how this cynical game is played in a column he wrote eight years ago for SFGate: “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

And that’s an apt description of the Biden bill: less about roads and bridges and more about digging a deep, expansive money pit.

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