John C. Austin, University of Michigan - Reconciling efficiency and justice in the distribution of federal infrastructure money

John C. Austin, University of Michigan
Reconciling efficiency and justice in the distribution of federal infrastructure money


President Biden’s most significant political achievement to date, the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress back in November, allocates just under half its riches — $550 billion to actual federal investments in America’s infrastructure — bridges and roads the nation’s systems for water and energy and broadband.

Of that, $4.7 billion has been reserved for programs to plug orphaned oil and gas wells nationwide. It’s a lot of money, but it’s not enough.  One GAO estimate says the real cost of plugging more than 130,000 mines, worked and abandoned, by owners across the country could be $19B, almost four times that.

Not enough, but all there is, so the competition among 26 states eligible for orphan mine money is going to be fierce.  Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, not long ago my representative in Congress from the 1st District of New Mexico, says her plan is “to get money to states as quickly as possible while being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.” Usually that translates to “distribut[ing] limited resources to those best able to use them, [because] the Feds don’t want to throw good money after bad.”

Sounds sensible, but how can this be reconciled to Secretary Haaland’s other announced goal: “ensuring states receive investments equitably and based on data-driven needs,”

Often, the states and counties and cities “best able to use” grant money are not the places with the biggest “data-driven needs.” Equitable distribution may not promote efficiency of use.

So what’s a government to do? First it has to prioritize: what’s more important, bang for your buck or social, economic and environmental justice?



John Austin is the former President of the Michigan State Board of Education. Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center, a center for ideas and network-building to advance Michigan’s economic transformation. Austin also serves as a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Metro, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Upjohn Institute, where he leads these organizations efforts to support economic transformation in the American Midwest. Austin also Lectures on the Economy at the University of Michigan.




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