Explaining Infrastructure: How a Bill Becomes a Road

With a September deadline looming, congressional staffers have been hard at work turning the infrastructure framework laid out last month by a group of bipartisan lawmakers into actual legislation. If some version of that framework becomes law, billions of our tax dollars will make their way from D.C. to congressional districts around the country. But how does that work, in practice? We know how a bill becomes a law, but how does a vote in Congress turn into a paved highway?

First, Congress isn’t pursuing infrastructure on a whim or because the president has a soft spot for Amtrak—we were due for infrastructure spending this year anyway. Congress passes standalone surface transportation bills every five years or so, which always get strong bipartisan support. These bills authorize spending levels for federal transportation programs. The most recent such bill expires on September 30.

While some infrastructure items are managed directly by the federal government—about half of the goods purchased by American consumers pass through ports and harbors maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, for example—the vast majority of infrastructure projects are carried out by states and localities. Each state is required to maintain a project list known as a State Transportation Improvement Program, or STIP. To receive federal funds, a project must be part of a STIP.

“The core highway and transit programs are federal aid programs whereby the state DOT or local transit agency selects and designs projects, subject to USDOT approval, and then the state or local agency builds the project,” Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, told The Dispatch in an email. “Each time the state or local agency pays a contractor or makes a purchase for that project, they email a voucher to USDOT, and USDOT then wires them money (usually same-day or next-day) to pay for a fixed share of the project (usually 90 percent for an Interstate Highway project, and 80 percent for any other kind of project).”

Create a free account
Access additional articles and newsletters for no cost, no credit card information needed. Continue ALREADY HAVE AN ACCOUNT? SIGN IN
Comments (8)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
  • Yuck. Reading about the nuts and bolts makes me yearn for gridlock

    Great article though

  • Great article. I once had a long conversation with my County’s Public Works Director and learned (on a very superficial level) about all of this. It changed my mind about gas taxes (though I still think they’re regressive) as well as made me appreciate road and road maintenance more than I ever thought possible.

    We need this infrastructure bill to pass and it needs to be bipartisan.

  • Legit love the title (and excellent piece as well).

  • Actually, the means to pay for government spending are obvious. Increase taxes or reduce spending somewhere else. What's missing is the intestinal fortitude, in the legislature, to make difficult but necessary decisions. Easier to spend my grandchildren into penury.

  • The interesting thing (to an economist anyway), is how the costs and benefits of the interstate transportation system are governed by the network effect. For example, if you connect Podunkville to the interstate highway, its 1,000 residents get connected to the whole rest of the country, which is a big benefit for each of a small number of people.

    But the project also connects each of 330 million Americans to Podunkville, which is an individually small benefit to each member of a large group. Each connection to a node involves the same distribution of benefits between the local vs. national level.

    So figuring out how much to collectively spend on each piece of the network is the trick. Who decides? And who pays? If localities decide but don't have to pay, they will overbuild pet projects -- e.g. "bridges to nowhere". If the feds make all the decisions, though, the local benefits won't be fully considered in the calculation.

    It sounds like the current system mostly has the states picking the projects and the feds paying 80%. Off-hand, that seems like it would encourage inefficient overbuilding and that the split should be closer to 50/50 to make sure the states have enough "skin in the game" to pick only good projects for funding.

    But at the end of the day this is classic democratic politics, everyone's representative has to get in there and make sure his constituents are satisfied they got their "fair share."

  • One nitpick... Generally this Senate bipartisan process is happening outside of committee process, but the highway bill itself came out of committee and the Energy committee is marking up it's portion of the bipartisan deal tomorrow, so it is somewhat of a hybrid.

  • Respect the earnest, just-the-facts-ma'am reporting here. But I suspect there's more subcutaneous ugliness at work, since it's all about vested interest groups fighting over cash, which to some resembles sausage-making. The idea that road-building infrastructure can fix the climate, for instance, is nothing more than a naked play for the power to grab the most cash.

    I mean, if you truly believe in such a thing as dangerous carbon, you should forego all infrastructure projects and force people to stay put. Every bit of the infrastructure involves either petro-based asphalt or carbon-intensive Portland cement. All to facilitate the movement of motor vehicles that use either internal combustion engines running on petro, or less efficient battery-powered vehicles running on electricity that must be produced reliably, which means by conventional power plants that backstop the unreliable energy sources that are the political darlings of today's boutique liberals--and that generate enough payouts to special interest groups that under most interpretations would be indistinguishable from graft.

    Oh, well. Another day, another dollar...