March 31, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

We may look back on today as the day that President Joe Biden laid out a vision for America’s aggressive transition to renewable energy, 5G telecommunications, more energy-efficient homes and offices and the reconstruction of America’s roads, bridges and ports.

Or it may slowly die after being pecked to death in the halls of Congress because there is not yet a clear way to pay for it.

You will hear some people refer to this as a $4 trillion plan. That refers to a second part of Biden’s vision, which is a more than $1 trillion plan that won’t come today. Instead, the Biden administration will roll out its plan to expand health insurance coverage and provide paid medical and family leave in a matter of weeks. All of this comes on top of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that Congress passed earlier this month.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says if Biden hopes to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, there is a big fight ahead.

Some groups have been pushing for an increased gas tax or taxing the people and businesses who use roads and bridges the most. But the Biden administration rejects that notion. Reuters says:

According to two sources familiar with the plan. It includes raising corporate income taxes back to the 28% Biden is expected to propose the biggest federal tax increase in decades, rate in effect before the 2017 tax law, and increasing the marginal tax rate on high-earners, according to two sources familiar with the plan.

White House aides say that Biden may also rely on some federal borrowing to fund the package, given historically low interest rates.

The Washington Post rooted out more details of the Biden plan:

(The Washington Post)

As a presidential candidate, Biden laid out a deep plan for infrastructure, which has been a common promise for candidates for decades. But the Highway Trust Fund that pays for mass transit funding, including road repairs, has run a deficit for years. The government says within a decade, the fund will be $207 billion short. So what Biden unveils today, in part, doesn’t just add new spending — it is plugging a drain.

Part of the issue is that while maintenance costs for our roads, bridges and other infrastructure rises, the price we pay into the fund through taxes — 8.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel — has not gone up in three decades.

You can get an idea of the scope of the work that lies ahead even just by looking at roads and bridges, let alone wind farms and internet broadband lines. This is an inventory of bridges in every state and territory that the American Road and Transportation Builders Association says are deficient.

(ARTBA)

About one out of three bridges in the U.S. are either outdated or unsound. “There are 171.5 million daily crossings on over 45,000 structurally deficient U.S. bridges in poor condition,” ARTBA says.

Explore the entire chart here, or deficient bridges by congressional district. Here are the most traveled deficient bridges sorted by state and county. Three-fifths of the top 25 bridges on this list are in California. Two of the top 10 are in Puerto Rico.

One infrastructure issue: a truck parking shortage

No doubt journalists will explore the infrastructure proposal in a thousand ways in the months to come — partly because it is important, partly because it involves so much money and would create a lot of jobs coast to coast. Here is just one example of infrastructure issues that affect everyday working people.

A week ago, members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure told Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that there is a severe shortage of parking spaces for big trucks, referring to spaces where truck drivers can safely pull over and rest.

Trucking industry website FleetOwner reports:

The Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act, which was reintroduced in the House on March 29, would use $755 million from the federal Highway Trust Fund to support state projects to increase parking.

“The severe shortage of safe parking presents truckers with an untenable dilemma: either keep driving when they are fatigued and possibly in violation of their federal hours-of-service requirement — or park in unsafe, sometimes illegal locations, such as a roadside shoulder,” Chris Spear, the American Trucking Associations’ president and CEO, said on March 29.

According to the ATA, there are currently 11 truck drivers for every parking space in the U.S., which has led to the average driver spending 56 minutes of available drive time to look for parking, which can cut into drivers’ wages and slow down supply chains.

“The health and wellbeing of our drivers, the safety of the motoring public and the sustainability of our supply chain all depend on Congress addressing this issue with adequate funding in a surface transportation bill,” Spear said.

Truckers are also paying close attention to how the infrastructure plan might pay for a transition to the electrification of the trucking industry, which would not just require a new fleet but millions of recharging stations across the country. Consider that electrifying just the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to move them to zero emissions would cost about $14 billion.

Water shutoffs about to grow as some pandemic utility protections expire tomorrow

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the ban on evictions because of overdue rent, but another big problem is about to develop. The Washington Post reports that in the coming weeks, utility companies that have been giving past-due customers a break will begin turning off the spigot. 

A group called Food and Water Watch says, “As of January, 183 million people are not protected under a state or local moratorium.” And more will lose protection tomorrow. After April 1, about 200 million people will be without a utility cutoff moratorium.

Congress set aside about $50 billion for rental relief and utility relief. Another $1 billion is earmarked for people about to have their water cut off. But those two programs have not started writing checks yet and may not for several months as the Department of Health and Human Services develops guidelines for the assistance.

In the meantime, in Pennsylvania, by one estimate, 815,000 households could see their utilities cut off after tomorrow for nonpayment. In Michigan, 317,000 households could lose access to water after tomorrow.

The Post says there is a national utility crisis in the making:

Utility protections enacted in the early months of the pandemic are slated to expire in some states — including Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont — over the next few weeks. The looming lapses have registered new urgent alarm among congressional lawmakers and community activists nationwide, who say the Biden administration should have acted faster, and sooner, to distribute federal aid to households at risk.

None of the roughly $1 billion in new stimulus funds allocated for water assistance has reached Americans in need, nearly three months after Congress authorized the first tranche of money. In the meantime, the Biden administration has resisted calls on Capitol Hill to instate a national moratorium on water and electricity shut-offs, a policy that might have covered people until federal assistance arrives.

The Post generated a chart showing where the protections will expire next:

(The Washington Post)

Local jail populations drop, local jail budgets in 48 cities grow

Over the last three years, I have led workshops around the country on covering jails and justice reform. The Vera Institute, which advocates for decarceration, just finished a national study that shows even though jail populations are dropping, jail budgets are growing. Vera argues that the best way to lower jail costs is to reconsider whether jail is the most effective way to assure public safety.

Vera found:

Reducing the number of people in jail is a step toward dismantling mass incarceration and its harmful implications for public health and wellbeing. But even though fewer people are being locked up in jails in big cities, local governments are not spending less on jail. In fact, most cities are spending more — much more.

New York City currently spends $429,781 to incarcerate one person in jail for a year, up from $182,555 a decade ago. With a budget of $2.3 billion, it spends more than any other city — to lock up fewer than 5,500 people. Even though its jail population dropped 39 percent from 2011 to 2021, Seattle spends $154,778 to lock up one person for a year, up from $78,924 10 years ago. The trend continues in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and in other cities across the country. Although fewer people are behind bars, jail budgets continue to grow.

You can pull Vera’s data for these cities:

(Vera)

(Vera)

Jails may tell you that the reason their budgets are increasing is that their costs per incarcerated person are so much greater. Some jails are the biggest “mental health treatment facilities” in their counties, although they were not conceived to serve that function.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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