Joung Lee, the Deputy Director of AASHTO, joins us to talk about the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which has now been signed into law. Joung helps us figure out what exactly is in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
AASHTO re:source Q&A Podcast Transcript
Season 2, Episode 32: Infrastructure Bill Update
Released: December 07, 2021
Hosts: Brian Jonson, AASHTO Accreditation Program Manager; Kim Swanson, Communications Manager, AASHTO re:source
Guest: Joung Lee, the Deputy Director of AASHTO
Note: Please reference AASHTO re:source and AASHTO Accreditation Program policies and procedures online for official guidance on this, and other topics.
Transcription is auto-generated.
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00:00:02 ANNOUNCER: Welcome to AASHTO resource Q & A. We're taking time to discuss construction materials, testing, and inspection with people in the know from exploring testing problems and solutions to laboratory best practices and quality management, we're covering topics important to you. Now here our host, Brian Johnson.
00:00:20 BRIAN: Welcome to Astro Resource Q&A. I'm Brian Johnson with me is Kimberly Swanson. Hey, Kim.
00:00:27 KIM: Hi Brian, great to be here today.
00:00:29 BRIAN: Well, we have an exciting day planned for our listeners. We are going to talk about the transportation bill recently. As most of you probably know, the President signed a bill into law that's intended to address some of the concerns we've had over the years regarding infrastructure. This is something that should have an impact on people in the transportation industry. Construction and maintenance, as well as the traveling public. Here to give us some insight into this new law is Jung Lee, who is our new Deputy Director at AASHTO Jung Less. Welcome to the podcast.
00:01:03 JOUNG: Hey, Brian. Hey, Kim. Thank you so much for having me once again.
00:01:07 BRIAN: Now last time when we talked to Jung, he was not the deputy director, and now he is Jung. Just a little, if you don't mind talking about this real quickly, how is that going to change for you in your involvement in transportation policy?
00:01:21 JOUNG: So my new role is, you know, going to keep the work that I had been doing, which is more on kind. Of the legislative. And policy development front and making sure that our state dot team members perspectives are well represented on Capitol Hill with our USDOT partners et cetera. The new role I think you know is really looking to take a more strategic approach in how we. Envision and deliver on the associations priorities, so to be a little bit more specific, we have our 2021-2022 Ashton, President, doctor Shawn, Shawn Wilson from Louisiana Department of Transportation and develop. And his presidential emphasis areas first is on equity and 2nd is on building stronger partnerships. And so those are the kinds of things that I guess my role will have in coming up with tangible deliverables during his tenure. We also have adopted our new.
00:02:23 JOUNG: To strategic plan for the next five years. And that is also something where we want to make sure that it's a plan that is put into action again with tangible results. So the new role will help to you know channel. I think the associations, resources and obviously the just the great talent that we have right to actualize. What our Board of Directors has laid upon for the association and also continuing, I think you know the engagement with our external stakeholders, whether it's not just government but other associations, academic institutions, private sector partners, etc.
00:03:05 BRIAN: Well, that's exciting to hear. And as a staff member in one of the technical service programs of AASHTO, I'm excited to be part of that too, so. Look forward to some collaboration in the future with all of the technical service programs and our new Deputy director. So now let's get into the transportation bill. So John, do you mind giving us some highlights?
00:03:31 JOUNG: So you know, I think we've had kind of this talk about this infrastructure week for some time now and to actually see it happen, I mean, yes, that's why we've all been striving for years and years at this point, right, to actually put infrastructure investment as a top national priority. And then make it happen by making it happen, meaning you know come up with unprecedented levels of funding resources and strong policy goals attached to that as well, and that that is what we have with this bipartisan infrastructure build. The technical title is a mouthful. It's the infrastructure investment in jobs. In fact, we are still trying to figure out the shorthand. Is it? Yeah. Is it something else? But obviously the important thing here is that it does provide for the transportation sector $567 billion in funding over the next five years. So between 2022 and 2026, what we're looking at.
00:04:35 JOUNG: Before for the Highway trust fund programs, if you were to just have flat line, existing funding would be about 300 billion, so going from 300 billion to almost 600 billion, right, that that is a lot. Of additional resources being provided, I know that there are there are a lot of different numbers out there. Uh, principally this $1.2 trillion infrastructure package is what's been talked about a lot. And then 550 billion of that is the new spending on top of existing funding levels. That includes other sectors well outside of transportation, like power and, you know, water, wastewater and the like. But what we're obviously focused on here at AASHTO on transportation funding levels is that $567 billion. Specifically for this audience, you know on the roads, bridges, highways, sector, we are looking at $351 billion / 5 years and just the year over year increase that we're looking at is going from $49 billion provided to the Federal Highway.
00:05:48 JOUNG: Administration last federal fiscal year to 67.7 billion in 2022. So that's about a 30% bump. And that's a very healthy, robust but. Some other sectors like rail for example, is actually seeing a 470% or so year over year funding increase. So that really, I mean I think you know you can classify as generational investment transit levels are also very robust as well as safety funding. So those are all the you. The kinds of priorities that Congress saw fit to include in the bill, along with the Biden administration, and we are excited as the state dots really own and operate. So much of these important assets to actually implement that bill and bring the benefits that had been long promised to every part of the country.
00:06:43 BRIAN: Yeah, no, not rail investment. Like you said, that's a generational change there and we're talking about something that has been looked at as kind of an antiquated mode of transportation, but certainly an important one, especially we're talking about moving goods. Around that and materials that is important and what I mean, when's the last time you can remember anybody really talking about pumping money into rail?
00:07:08 JOUNG: Yeah. So you know during the Recovery Act, this is after the Great Recession or during the Great Recession in 2009, there were $8 billion that were provided for high speed rail programs around the country. And we have been able to, I think see higher speed rail in some of the corridors. Around the country. A good chunk of that money went to the California High Speed rail program that is still working its way through, but that was a very specific focus on high-speed rail. The bill in the infrastructure package or the for rail, it's really looking at passenger rail programs as a whole. And also kind of the related improvements on free.
00:07:54 BRIAN: Rail side as well. Yeah, now for a lot of people when they hear about these numbers, you already mentioned the $1.2 trillion, but more specifically the 550 billion that is going to go into a lot of the things that our customers are concerned with. There is so much there's so much need for improvement and so much need to. Expand the roads and improve the bridges and all of the things that are needed throughout the country. That does not sound like a lot of money. How is that going to get distributed? Advantage of some of those funds to get some of their priorities taken care of.
00:08:33 JOUNG: Yeah, that's a that's a really great question. So we've relied for the transportation sector, the kind of the tenants of federalism, right, it's that the state and localities work together with the federal government, but it's not really kind of the federal government calling the shots. You can see kind of in more of the centralized structures. You know, like in Korea or Japan or China where you know there's a lot of top down like this is what shall happen throughout the country. That's not our model in the US, we are looking to continue to really have the states take a leading role again with their local partners. In delivering these federal resources, the States and localities already have, you know, the 20 year long range transportation plans that outline their vision at the state level or for the metropolitan level, they have the four-year capital programming plans that.
00:09:35 JOUNG: Can kind of tie in the specific dollar amounts into specific phases of projects. So that's really based again on the state local determination of how the dollars are. To be spent. Whether it's repair or upkeep, slash state of repair or new. Infrastructure being added to the network. There are also some categories under this new bill rather than the formula dollars provided. States that are going to be provided directly by USDOT in the form of what we call discretionary grant programs, so discretionary in the sense that USDOT has the authority to pick the projects that they feel fit the criteria laid out by Congress, but obviously with the kinds of. Policy lens that matches up with the administration's goals and then give those dollars directly to those.
00:10:35 JOUNG: Projects, that is, you know, something that we've seen again since the Recovery Act 12 years ago with the tiger grants that you might have heard of, those are now called the raise grants. It's gone through some name changes over the years. There's also the infra grant program that the last reauthorization build, the fast stack in 2016. Established, focused on Hwy. Freight projects. Those are two really kind of the prominent discretionary grant program so far, the new infrastructure bill would create a whole lot more of those types of programs. So it would provide more project selection and decision making authority directly to the USDOT than it has ever been before. So, you know, I think for our state dot member. There's they can definitely look to rely on the traditional formula based apportionments that they can program for the next five years of the bill and then they can compete for these discretionary grant programs as plus ups to those formula dollars.
00:11:39 JOUNG: But it takes a lot of work to be able to. Create the solicitation application criteria and then application and evaluation project. Agreement Slash Grant award all of that takes time, so there is definitely a lot of work cut out at the US dot to really process all those dollars.
00:12:01 BRIAN: So we talked about this last time we had you on too that there are all these systems in place and the DOT's for example they may have 1020 years of projects that they have slated to get built or get rehabilitated or expand the what they have for their citizens. And so does this mean if I'm running the Dot's Budget Office and I'm figuring out, OK, well, I've got. I originally slated to have all of these projects done. Now with this added funding, I can add 25% more construction is that is that basically what the impact is for each state?
00:12:41 JOUNG: So I think, you know, uh, we are trying to find the right balance in terms of expectations in that this is again unprecedented amount of. Courses, but it's also not the kinds of resources that will fix every problem, and even close to it, really. Like you said, Brian, the bill is going to be able to dig deeper into the list of all the projects and improvements that the states are looking for, perhaps deeper down than before. But it's not going to be able to cover the entire list, right? There may also be some improvements or benefits in terms of doing some of those types of improvements earlier rather than having to wait until the, you know, existing dollars open up. So those are definitely very important opportunities, but it also isn't necessarily something where. We were looking at another new Interstate highway system. Or that things can happen and realize in the next six months or even a year, because by nature these types of capital investments take a long time to plan for and to complete.
00:13:54 BRIAN: Now you also mentioned safety as part of this and I know that. That's a smaller. Chunk of this investment, but do you have any idea what kind of improvements in safety can be made with the funds that come out of this bill?
00:14:08 JOUNG: So I think you know there are some philosophical underpinnings that are really emphasized throughout this bill. The 1st is that the transportation system should look to. To really protect vulnerable users of the system by that really the non motorized users that are walking or bicycling that are not in a vehicle. The other aspect is this idea of safe systems approach. Where rather than relying on education and enforcement to produce safe outcomes, and those are still necessary. But building a system that is as safe as possible so that even when there are user errors and that is inevitable, that they would have a safe of an outcome as we can. And you know, that's an area that has seen even greater urgency.
00:15:06 JOUNG: If it wasn't urgent before in terms of the. Roadway fatality numbers have really skyrocketed during the pandemic. We saw that last year and then what was disturbing was the first half of 2021. The numbers were higher much higher last year than ever before, but then it went even higher than that. And you know, that was an announcement, a very sobering announcement made by Secretary Pete Buttigieg at USDOT, actually at the AASHTO annual meeting last month.
00:15:36 BRIAN: The funding for safety is that going to be distributed directly by US dot or is this something that's going to go out to different DOT's to distribute how they need?
00:15:47 JOUNG: So a lot of these funding programs we're seeing kind of the split treatment in that some money will go as kind of the base formula. So there is the existing highway safety improvement program that is continued in the bill. That's the formula dollars provided to states. There is more flexibility added to that in the bill where you can use it for education and enforcement rather than only the quote UN quote hard infrastructure like guardrail installation. So we do. Think that additional flexibility is helpful for that formula pot. There is also the discretionary grant. Program that the USDOT will minister called the Safe Streets and roads for all that is a brand new construct really. So in terms of what the specific criteria would look like, what the timeline for application would look like, all those things are still being figured out.
00:16:42 BRIAN: OK. Well that's good. And and I I think this might be an area that you know when you talk about safety that not everybody thinks about all of the things that can go wrong unless they happen in your area. But if you talk to some of the DOT's, you hear some horror stories about what they're dealing with from a safety perspective. I remember attending a meeting and there was a presentation about all of the people who were going the wrong way on an on ramp widespread problem and it seemed absurd to hear about it. But the more I've been paying attention to Hwy. Safety issues, this has become a serious problem where people go the wrong way. And you would think how in the world can that happen, and perhaps you know signage problem could be an issue. Perhaps education. There's a lot of ways the money could be distributed to kind of help improve some of those issues.
00:17:33 JOUNG: Yes, it's definitely kind of the all of the above. Approach, but it really has been almost like an epidemic within an epidemic situation on the roadway fatalities in the last 20 months.
00:17:45 BRIAN: Now let's talk about equity. That's another one that I think a lot of people don't really have a firm grasp on is what improvements can be made in the area of equity when it comes to transportation. With a bill like this, can you give us any examples?
00:17:59 JOUNG: I guess about a year ago, our Board of Directors at Ashton adopted a resolution on race diversity. Equity and inclusion. Where you know there was the formal acknowledgement, and again this is a unanimously adopted resolution, that there have been past harms caused by the actions of, say, DOTs. And we recognize that what some of the highway projects have done decades ago have caused real harm with real. Legacies from those harms, and so there is a provision. In this infrastructure bill called reconnecting Communities, it's funded at $1 billion to find opportunities to reduce what is defined as infrastructure barriers. So if there is a structure that is separating communities, harming communities. What are the opportunities to address that? You know, we've seen a lot of different approaches around the country where in Denver, Interstate 70 through north of downtown Denver.
00:19:04 JOUNG: They have recently, you know, I think they are getting close to completing a putting a cap over the highway and depressing the Expressway so that the communities that were separated by that elevated Hwy. before are reconnected with park space and recreational amenities. On top of it so that you still provide that thoroughfare, which is a heavily used freight quarter. As you can imagine. But also make sure that the communities are reconnected. We've seen in Syracuse the I-81 project in New York, where they're looking to eliminate kind of the through highway that goes right through the downtown and divert it essentially through a bypass. To the outside of the town, and then turned that former highway into a urban Blvd.
00:20:01 JOUNG: And you know, there are many other types of approaches that are being considered, but now there is actual, you know, seed money from the federal. Government for that. So this is something that we are looking to really find, not just infrastructure barriers or through this connecting Communities program, but in every level at AASHTO. I mean it can really expand to how can we bring more opportunities for disadvantaged business enterprises. For example, especially in kind of the hot emerging areas like electric vehicle charging infrastructure and make sure that we are able to recognize the different communities that have again been harmed by past this. Are able to get the kinds of opportunities available more broadly.
00:20:52 BRIAN: Yeah, that that's great to have that kind of purposeful investment in communities throughout the country. And like you said, acknowledgement of the issues that have been caused by certain transportation projects and maybe those factors weren't being thought about back then or maybe they were being thought about in a negative way. But you know that a lot of. Times those concepts can be kind of hard to hard to grasp if you don't live in a densely populated area, but there's a lot in this bill for people in rural America as well, right? Not only are we talking about transportation investment, but I believe there's also some broadband investment in this too, right?
00:21:34 JOUNG: Totally, yeah. There is a 60 plus billion dollars of direct broadband investment funding, which is a new program category, right? We haven't had a federal broadband. Program before so that really provides significant amount of funding to really close that gap between especially urban areas. And as you noted, Brian, in rural areas, given obviously how you know indispensable, the technology is to be able to access opportunities, whether it's health opportunities, whether it's jobs. Et cetera.
00:22:07 BRIAN: Yeah, I mean, anybody who lives in a rural area realizes that there are some problems with availability of broadband access and that can be, you know, in today's life that can be a real problem, especially for everything that's. So that's so connected when you're not connected, you're left out in a number of ways. So I think that's a great acknowledgement and a great investment in the transportation bill and an expansion of the term. Structure that is going to make an improvement in a lot of people's lives too. So what else is it? We've covered a lot of topics today on this bill. What did we miss?
00:22:45 JOUNG: Well, I would say that, yeah, you know, some of the other kind of thematic priorities in the bill, one is on carbon reduction. So looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint from the transportation sector, a lot of it is really based on the vehicle emissions, so it's not so much that the infrastructure itself. Other than perhaps the construction process. Is causing the carbon footprint. It's more of the ongoing carbon footprint from the gas powered vehicles and so that's why. You probably have heard about all sorts of EV charging infrastructure funding programs, alternative fuel corridor funding programs that are part of the bill. There is also a lot of focus on infrastructure resiliency. So those two angles that are both tied to the overall climate change challenges? So on the resiliency side, there are new eligibilities. Add it to the existing core highway formula programs to make sure that hey, if it makes sense to invest more now to make it resilient so that you don't have to reconstruct the facility after it gets, you know, destroyed by a stronger hurricane down the road, then we should allow the federal programs to support those. Kinds of activities.
00:24:01 BRIAN: OK. So we're not talking just about electric vehicles or or things that reduce carbon footprint, but you're also talking about mitigating damage from stronger storms that are coming now, you know, relative to climate change?
00:24:15 JOUNG: Absolutely, absolutely.
00:24:16 BRIAN: OK. Oh, that's interesting. I didn't realize that was part of that. Well, now, all of this work is. Going to require people to do it right? So then we also have the jobs part, which is in the hodgepodge of words that is mixed into the title of this bill. So what kind of impact are we going to have with employment?
00:24:38 JOUNG: With this bill. So, you know, I think traditionally there's been a lot of talk about the direct jobs gains related to transportation projects, and that is absolutely true. But what I think we've learned, especially over the last decade, what we went through with the Great Recession is that we really should focus and we are with this bill. The multi decade return on investment, so this isn't about just the direct construction jobs. It's about just having a bigger jobs base across the board in the entire economy because it has become more efficient, more productive. Thanks to the improved efficiencies and the benefits from the overall transportation system, I know that is harder to kind of conceptualize, especially in, you know, in a political sphere, it doesn't line up nicely with the next two years or the next four years of an election cycle. But that's really where the proof. Is of these kinds of investments is that the investment that we make now isn't just about who gets more votes.
00:25:44 JOUNG: In the next election. It's really about benefiting all users or even the non-direct users of the system through not just improved economic performance but quality of life, right? Being able to get to more places using more options than ever before in a healthier way, in a safer way. With improved environmental outcomes as well.
00:26:09 BRIAN: So I think this is really going to have a positive impact in so many ways. But one thing I always get a little down about when I look at these kind of bills is at the footnote, there's always something about and this percent for fraud, there's always something built into these things for dealing with fraud and I. I forget how much it was on this one, but I remember it was significant as far as a taxpayer perspective is concerned. I don't want to see any waste in fraud. I guess I should throw waste in there because it's not just fraud, it's waste and fraud. Now, what can we do to get better about that and keeping those numbers down on waste and fraud?
00:26:51 JOUNG: Yeah, look, I mean, I think especially in the transportation sector and in the highway sector, we've added I guess above average well above average in terms of stamping out waste abuse and fraud over many decades. At this point. We do have a very efficient control system. On the revenue side, with the gas tax, for example, it's actually collected only by a few 1000 payers at the fuel distributor level. So it really makes it easier to track down if there are any problems going on on the receipt side on the how the dollars are spent, the kinds of procurement requirements that exist at the federal level. But also at each of the state level agencies as well. It's well understood. It may not allow things to happen as quickly as people would like to see, but obviously there is always a trade off.
00:27:43 JOUNG: Between having kind of the more controlled fiscal outcomes and how quickly you can do that, if you're looking at some of the more recent emergency programs like for COVID is a great example. The Cares Act last year. That was the first of the COVID packages through the American Rescue Plan Act. Both massive by historical standards, legislation and you saw that trade off taking place with the CARES Act. Especially this is an unprecedented emergency. We don't know what's going on. This is going to. We're going to pump out as much dollars to support small businesses and individuals as we can. At the cost of some of that being diverted for fraudulent purposes and you are seeing now some of these cases where you know somebody bought. Like a Lamborghini with paycheck protection program dollars. And they're going to get prosecuted for it.
00:28:39 JOUNG: But at the time, it was determined to be worth the national interest to just help as many people as possible rather than well, who should we help and how do we figure out who's worthy and who's not, etc. It's a different approach. With the infrastructure bill, because this is looking at the longer term outlook, so we should I think continue to see very disciplined kind of spending relative to other types of federal spending we've seen.
00:29:06 BRIAN: OK. Well, that puts me at ease. I appreciate that reassurance. Kim, do you have any other questions that popped up in your mind as we've been having this discussion?
00:29:16 KIM: I'm going to say no. Joung really covered all of the bases very well, and that language I could even understand. So I appreciate that.
00:29:24 BRIAN: OK, great. Well, Joung, I appreciate your time today. I know you're a busy guy and I know that our listeners are going to appreciate it too. You know, it's good to get this kind of objective perspective from AASHTO. I think on these issues because we don't have any agenda other than educating and. Informing people and helping improve transportation in general.
00:29:48 JOUNG: No, thank you for the opportunity. I mean, I don't know what your listeners have, don't have to listen to me again, I guess since. April of. This year, it's really fun to be back and to see you guys and obviously talk more about infrastructure policy. That's my thing. So thank you again for the opportunity.
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