What's in the $1.2 trillion dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act? : Planet Money The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill has passed Congress, but what exactly is in it? Today, the important, surprising, delightful line items. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

Planes, trains and bad bridges

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We love infrastructure here on PLANET MONEY because, you know, roads, bridges, shipping channels - this stuff is the circulatory system of the economy. So, of course, when the infrastructure bill passed on Friday night, we were like, OK, let's see what actually made it into this thing. And that is when we were also like, uh-oh, it's 1,039 pages long.


MALONE: Kelsey.

SNELL: Hello.

MALONE: Did you read this bill?

SNELL: I did.

MALONE: Thank God.

SNELL: (Laughter).

MALONE: Our friend Kelsey Snell is NPR's congressional correspondent. And lucky for us, she had already started reading this bill months ago.

This is not your first rodeo here.


MALONE: Do you have to bribe yourself to do this? Do you have to, like, sit down with some delicious chocolate or wine or - like, what...

SNELL: Well, I should say that I've been covering taxes and budget for most of my career.


SNELL: So this is actually easier than reading the tax code. Let's put it that way.

MALONE: So for you, this is the pulpy paperback. This is your summer read.

This "Da Vinci Code," if you will, of spending bills has $110 billion to repair roads and bridges. It's got $65 billion to modernize the electric grid. But also, it's got $10 billion to clean up drinking water, $15 billion to replace lead pipes, $65 billion to expand broadband access. Now that's the big stuff, and we're definitely going to get to that. But I was delighted to learn that Kelsey has also been keeping this list of, like, smaller, quirkier stuff that also ended up in the bill.

SNELL: OK, so we're going to go to Section 11123.

MALONE: OK, 11123, "Wildlife Crossing Safety."

SNELL: This is a section of the bill dedicated to, as they phrase it, preventing wildlife-vehicle collisions. But what it really is is a pilot study for, you know, animal crossings across highways.

MALONE: Like, imagine little bridges for - I don't know - Florida panthers - $350 million over the next five years. And it's not just, like, money for building stuff in this bill.

SNELL: How about crash test dummies?


SNELL: Let's go over to Section 24221.

MALONE: This section asks for a study within one year on whether crash test dummies should reflect different people better - body types, ages, sexes. But Kelsey says that maybe her favorite discovery is Section 23007.

SNELL: It is "Promoting Women In The Trucking Workforce."


SNELL: They say women make up 47% of the workforce in the United States but only 6.6% of truck drivers.

MALONE: That is incredibly low. I would've guessed low, but not that low.

SNELL: Right. And, you know, the part of this that I think is really kind of funny is they make the point that women truck drivers have been shown to be 20% less likely than male counterparts to be involved in a crash.

MALONE: Look; these are just some of the smaller sections that stuck out to Kelsey. But she says, of course, most of what's newsworthy here are the tens of billions of dollars that is being spent to build infrastructure.

If you had to say what definition ultimately informs what's in this bill, what definition of infrastructure would you use?

SNELL: I guess the way that I've heard it described most frequently is how the economy moves across the country, how goods and services move, how people get to and from work. And so that goes, again, to roads, bridges, rails, transit, airports, ports and then the expansion and safety of those things.

MALONE: Kelsey told me it's tough to do an apples-to-apples comparison to the 1930s, but it is not ridiculous to mention this infrastructure bill in the same sentence as the big public works spending of the New Deal. This 1,039 pages of stuff - it is a once-in-a-generation piece of spending.


MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone. We are about to spend $1.2 trillion on infrastructure. What does that really mean out there in the real world? Today on the show, we visit a tiny airport with a ridiculously cool name, a horrifying-sounding bridge in Cincinnati and orphaned pieces of infrastructure that are slowly destroying the planet.


MALONE: Now, two quick pieces of housekeeping here. One trillion dollars is a lot of money. Democrats argue that this would pay for itself. The Congressional Budget Office said it would not. It will reportedly increase the deficit by $256 billion over the next 10 years.

Thing No. 2 - there is another giant spending bill that has included stuff like child care, Medicare expansion, community college, climate change spending. That is a different bill. It may or may not go anywhere. We don't know at the moment.

But what did pass is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. And the first category we're going to talk about is the big one in this bill - $110 billion to repair roads and bridges. And there is a single bridge between Ohio and Kentucky that has become a national symbol of infrastructure problems.

How much of your job as a traffic anchor is talking about the Brent Spence Bridge at this point?

JEN DALTON: Seventy percent.


DALTON: For real. I mean, it's our major thoroughfare.

MALONE: Jen Dalton is the traffic anchor at WKRC in Cincinnati. And here's what you need to know about the Brent Spence Bridge. It is the place where all of the traffic from two huge interstate highways merge together for one brief, horrible moment to cross the Ohio River. About $1 billion worth of goods has to move across this bridge every day. And it has reportedly become the second-worst bottleneck in the country. I have driven this bridge. It's double-decker, incredibly tight lanes, semitrucks everywhere. It gave me anxiety.

DALTON: Although it is stable, we're told. It is structurally stable.

MALONE: Oh (laughter).

DALTON: Well, some people are scared to drive over it because so many things have happened.

MALONE: Right.

DALTON: You know, we had pieces of it falling. We've had crashes on it. There was a giant fire that shut it down for six weeks. So people are scared.

MALONE: Brent Spence did just fully reopen after some cleaning and a nice new paint job. But Jen says it still gets clogged in a heartbeat because there are basically no shoulders on this bridge, and so the second that there is an accident, the whole thing jams up. And it's become this national symbol because here is a bridge that became a more and more critical shipping route and, as a result, has been pushed further and further to its limit.

DALTON: Not only does it carry a billion dollars' worth of, you know, freight every day. It's carrying people to and from school. It's carrying them to their jobs. So it's not just a structure that we drive over. It connects the nation, when you think about it.

MALONE: There is currently a proposal out there to build a whole second bridge next to the old Brent Spence Bridge, but it would cost about $2.5 billion. Hence, it makes sense for the Brent Spence Bridge to try and get some of this infrastructure money.

The bill does set aside almost $40 billion for bridges, plus there's, like, $16 billion for really big projects that are good for the economy. But the American Society of Civil Engineers says that fixing the backlog of run-down bridges in the United States would cost way more than that. So it's possible Brent Spence is left hanging.

You know, when I talked to Jen Dalton, it was about 10 a.m., a little past rush hour, and she had just gotten off air. But she had up in front of her, like, all of her live looks and data on Brent Spence. And so before I let her go, I just had to check something off of my bucket list - pretending to be an actual television anchor.

DALTON: I could absolutely do that. OK.

MALONE: All right.

DALTON: Three, two.


MALONE: And now with the latest from the Brent Spence Bridge, our traffic anchor for today, WKRC in Cincinnati's Jen Dalton. Jen.

DALTON: Here's your PLANET MONEY travel forecast. From 275 downtown on 71/75 northbound, the Brent Spence Bridge this morning is actually looking pretty clear. You're only running about six minutes and averaging 62 miles per hour. Have a great morning. Back to you at PLANET MONEY.

MALONE: Thanks, Jen. That clear traffic on Brent Spence - not great for the point we'd like to make in this story, but great for the people of Cincinnati and Covington.

DALTON: That was a great wrap.

MALONE: Did I do OK?



MALONE: All right, so I am looking at Section 40601, "Orphaned Well Site Plugging, Remediation, And Restoration."

RACHEL ADAMS-HEARD: Yes, it's a bit of a wonky name for something that, when you boil down to it, is not that complicated.

MALONE: Rachel Adams-Heard is a reporter for Bloomberg News. She's based in Houston, has written lots about oil and gas wells, including orphaned wells.

ADAMS-HEARD: So when a well is done producing oil and gas, its owner, usually an oil company, is responsible for plugging it.

MALONE: The owner is supposed to basically fill the well with cement, or else the thing can leak bad stuff, including methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. But sometimes an oil or gas company goes bankrupt, shuts down and then doesn't bother to cap their wells. That is how we end up with orphaned wells.

A recent report found that, like, 80,000 of these things exist around the country. But Rachel says there are almost certainly more that we just do not know about yet. In fact, Rachel actually found a volunteer group in Pennsylvania that tries to track down orphaned wells.

ADAMS-HEARD: And it's pretty much just a bunch of retired schoolteachers who go out and try to find these orphaned wells. So they form, like, this grid, essentially, almost like you would for a missing person or something...

MALONE: Oh, my gosh.

ADAMS-HEARD: ...If you have a search party. And they're trying to find these wells that are out in the middle of nowhere a lot of the time.

MALONE: Rachel says it can cost anywhere from $20,000 to over $100,000 to plug one orphaned well. You know, you multiply that by tens of thousands of these things, and you could say that this is a pretty expensive problem, which has typically fallen on the states to pay for the plugging. But the infrastructure bill does have a bunch of money set aside for this exact purpose - $4.7 billion.

ADAMS-HEARD: Yeah, it's a big number. And it's...


ADAMS-HEARD: It's crazy to think about how big it is and the fact that it doesn't fully address this problem.

MALONE: It doesn't fully address the problem because those billions of dollars will cap around 62,000 wells, leaving thousands more out there, Rachel says.


MALONE: After the break, the secret to running your own airport - learn to do basically everything.



MALONE: Joe, are you at the airport?

HEDRICK: I am - in my office.

MALONE: Look at that. I see a little airplane in the background.

HEDRICK: Yeah, there's an A-4 Skyhawk.

MALONE: Joe Hedrick is the airport manager of the Thief River Falls Regional Airport, which is, I think, the coolest name for an airport I have ever heard. And we are here because we read about Joe in the Grand Forks Herald and because there is about $25 billion set aside for airports in the infrastructure bill. Now, Joe's airport, Thief River Falls Regional Airport, is a small airport in northern, very cold Minnesota - staff of five, including Joe.

HEDRICK: My job has a lot of variety. I go from dealing with our politicians in some cases. And then if it's snowing out, I'll jump in a snowplow and get out on the runway, so.

MALONE: You plow the runway yourself?

HEDRICK: Yeah, yeah.

MALONE: Now, we all know the LAXs, the DFWs. People sell freaking socks with the PDX carpet pattern on them. But it is the TVFs, the Thief River Fallses, these regional airports that keep the economic blood pumping to more rural parts of the country. And there is a bunch of money in the infrastructure bill to help regional airports make changes.

I've pulled up Google Maps here. I'm going to zoom in on your airport, OK?

From the sky, you can see that Thief River Falls has a big runway and a little runway, and they make a perfect cross. Joe points to the big runway.

HEDRICK: We are trying to justify a runway extension. We're currently at 6,500 feet. We'd like to get to 8,000 feet

MALONE: Because of the existing shorter runway, Joe says, cargo jets aren't able to max out their carrying capacity. He says there are days when pallets of outbound packages have to be left behind, and mostly packages from one company.

HEDRICK: I would say 99% of the packages that are outbound are from a company called Digi-Key Electronics.

MALONE: Digi-Key Electronics?

HEDRICK: Yeah. They sell little components, including the semiconductors everybody's talking about.

MALONE: Digi-Key Electronics is incredibly important to this community. Joe tells me the city of Thief River Falls has a population of about 8,500 people, and around 4,000 people are employed by Digi-Key Electronics.

HEDRICK: Digi-Key is projected to have revenues of $4.5 billion in 2021.

MALONE: Whoa. Maybe they should pay for the extension of the airport. I know - I'm sure you can't comment on that.

There certainly is an argument that companies provide jobs, pay taxes, and then the government pays for infrastructure. And, I mean, look; that is a big part of what this infrastructure bill is, all this taxpayer spending to keep economic pathways moving, goods shipping, people commuting. Joe is not looking for much in the grand scheme of $1 trillion. Like, that runway extension would cost in the tens of millions of dollars, he says. But Joe says it would add roughly 25% capacity to cargo jets leaving his airport.

Well, Joe, I'm looking at your forecast, and I'm seeing some snow on Thursday. So I don't know what kind of prep time you need to get ready to be the plow guy for the tarmac, but, like, I should probably let you go and do whatever you need to do. It's coming.

HEDRICK: Yeah. We're ready for it.


MALONE: All right, our final stop here is broadband internet. And I just want to say that my co-host Wailin Wong used to be a tech reporter. I guess once a tech reporter, always a tech reporter. Wailin, and you would not stop Slacking me, like, facts about broadband from the infrastructure bill.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: That's right.

MALONE: For, like, days, Wailin.

WONG: I used up all of my bandwidth to send you many, many Slacks.

MALONE: That's right. And eventually, we were like, all right, Wailin, just come into this episode then and tell us what it is you want us all to know about broadband in the infrastructure bill.

WONG: Well, I was really fascinated by the broadband section because it attempts to pull off something really humongous, which is getting Americans that have slow internet or no internet or bad internet connected to good, fast internet. So it's a really big problem with a big solution. And before we get to this massive issue, let me introduce you to Christopher Ali.

CHRISTOPHER ALI: I am recording now, too. So we are good there.

WONG: So in the summer of 2018, Christopher was renting a little house on a soybean farm just outside of Mason City, Iowa. He was there with his faithful hound dog, Tuna.


WONG: And one night, he hears a knock on the window. And it's this group of women.

ALI: The first thing they said is, are you one of us? And I was like, I don't even know what that means.

MALONE: I do not even know what that means. What does that mean?

WONG: Yeah. So there was a family reunion taking place next door, and they assumed he was part of the family. He wasn't. But this group of women in their 60s - they invited Christopher and Tuna over anyway.

What did they serve for dinner?

ALI: Oh, goodness, an incredible amount of Southern cooking. There was fried chicken. There was cornbread. I spent a whole weekend with this family, who - they didn't know me from anyone. And all the conversations ended up coming back to broadband.

WONG: See? There's lots of people out there who love talking about broadband.

MALONE: Apparently, yes.

WONG: Including Christopher. He is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. And he and his dog have been on this endless road trip researching a book on rural broadband.

ALI: Tuna and I were very interested in agricultural communities. Where did - we went to Kentucky. We went to Missouri. We went to Indiana. We went to North Dakota, Illinois.

WONG: I'm picturing you and Tuna in the car, and Tuna's in the passenger seat and has the map out, and you're driving.

ALI: It's not that far off.

WONG: Wherever Christopher went, people told him about how frustrated they were with their local broadband service - things like spotty connections or their phones hitting dead zones or not being able to get on Facebook. That was what the family reunion people told him over dinner.

MALONE: Sure. They want their Facebook. But, you know, the problem of rural broadband is something that we have covered on this show before. And so it definitely caught my attention that there is in this bill $65 billion for broadband internet. This seems significant, Wailin.

WONG: Yeah. Christopher says it's the biggest public investment in telecommunications in the country's history. And so what the bill is really saying is that good, fast internet is now as important for fully participating in life as roads, bridges, airports - like, a lot of this other stuff that's covered in the bill. And the broadband section specifically says that we have to tackle the digital divide in rural areas, tribal communities and low-income neighborhoods.

ALI: The stories are repeated over and over and over again not just in rural areas, but in urban areas as - in under-connected urban areas, as well. I mean, McDonald's and libraries ended up being, you know, some of the major points of connectivity for un- and under-connected Americans.

MALONE: OK, so $65 billion - lots of money. But I have no sense of scale here. Is that, like, enough to do anything at all here?

WONG: Well, the FCC - that's the Federal Communications Commission - has one estimate that it would cost $80 billion to blanket the country with fiber internet. So that's actually more than what the bill sets aside for broadband. Plus, it's really hard to predict how much more we'll need from our broadband networks in the future. So this is probably not going to fully future-proof our internet infrastructure, but it is the biggest attempt we've had so far.

MALONE: So maybe not enough to, like, let us all holographically Zoom with each other.

WONG: No, but I could send you 5,000 more Slacks.

MALONE: Great, great. Thank you, Wailin, so much.

WONG: You bet.


MALONE: Well, there you go. That's a trip through, like, just, you know, a few of the highlights in this bill. And there's so much more that it got us thinking. You know, one time we did take the entire "Great Gatsby" and just read that 'cause those words are important and we wanted you to have those. And so we thought, what if with this infrastructure bill...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: (Reading) Title I - "Federal-Aid Highways." Subtitle A - "Authorizations And Programs." Section 11101 - "Authorization Of Appropriations." In general, the following...

MALONE: All right, yeah, whatever. We ran the numbers, and it was going to take, like, 40 hours to do this. So who knows? Maybe in a special feed one day.

If there are parts of this bill that you are particularly interested in, you've got questions about, we would love to hear about those. And I suspect we'll be covering this for a generation, probably. You can email us. We are planetmoney@npr.org. You can also find us on social media platforms. We are generally @planetmoney.

This episode was produced by Dave Blanchard with help from the brilliant James Sneed. It was mastered by Gilly Moon. It was edited by Jess Jiang and Molly Messick. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Louise Story and Ebony Reed are our consulting editors. Christopher Ali's book about broadband is called "Farm Fresh Broadband." It, of course, includes a dedication to Tuna the hound dog. I'm Kenny Malone. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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