Category Archives: Infrastructure

How Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express Got The Fast Track In Chicago

Source: Becky Vevea, WBEZ, August 9, 2018

Underneath the popular Block 37 shopping complex in downtown Chicago is a partially finished, unused train station. There are no turnstyles or escalators, just an elevator and a few rectangular openings in the ground. Aldermen approved the “super station” with little discussion in 2005, but it was mothballed before completion. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted it to be the base for express train service to both Chicago airports. Thirteen years later, with taxpayers still paying off the loan that financed the $218 million station, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has found somebody to fulfill those high-speed dreams: entrepreneur Elon Musk. … Musk said his plan, known as the O’Hare Express, is to build a speedy pod that will shoot through an underground tunnel to get riders between Downtown and O’Hare International Airport in just 12 minutes. Officials said Emanuel and Musk hope to start digging as soon as this fall. But can they fulfill these promises? … Here’s a look at how Chicago’s mayor fast-tracked the express transit to the airport and why that matters to taxpayers, Musk, and the future of express transit elsewhere. …

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Elon Musk and Rahm Emanuel’s New Transportation Scheme Is a Privatization Bonanza
Source: Emma Tai and Stephanie Farmer, In These Times, July 27, 2018
 
In June, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration selected Elon Musk’s The Boring Company to build a non-stop express train from downtown to O’Hare Airport. The development is yet another example of Emanuel’s plan to transform Chicago into a city for the wealthy few.  Emanuel has stated that Musk’s express train will be fully financed by private investors. But the city’s 2009 parking meter fiasco has taught us that working Chicagoans end up on the losing side of fast-tracked privatization schemes. Morgan Stanley Investment Partners (MSIP) paid the city over $1 billion to lease the city’s parking meter system. But in an information memorandum released in 2010, MSIP estimated that, by the end of the lease in 2084, the firm would rake in over $11 billion from parking meter users by charging higher fares. …

US government failing millions by paying below $15 an hour, study finds

Source: Mike Elk, The Guardian, August 10, 2018
 
The federal government employs more workers making less than $15 an hour than any other employer in the US, a new report has revealed.  The study, compiled by pro-union group Good Jobs Nation, analyzed federal data and showed that the government spends more than $1.6tn on federal contractors employing more than 12.5 million people with 4.5 million of those workers making below $15 an hour.  Many of these workers are employed by contractors as janitors, cafeteria workers, call center workers, administrative assistants and healthcare aides, and union campaigners say they are being kept on poverty wages. …

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Ruling unlikely to end Puerto Rico Oversight Board struggle with local government

Source: Robert Slavin, Bond Buyer, July 24, 2018 (Subscription Required)

Puerto Rico bankruptcy judge Laura Taylor Swain’s anticipated ruling on the relative powers of the Oversight Board and the local government is unlikely to end the battle for authority over the debt-burdened U.S. territory. Swain will hear oral arguments Wednesday on an adversary complaint filed earlier this month in the Title II bankruptcy case by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, in which he argued the local government can’t be forced to follow parts of the board’s fiscal plan that deal with policy. Governance issues are likely to remain whatever her ruling, observers said. … Other Puerto Rico government sectors have followed the government in filing adversary complaints challenging the board’s power. On July 9 Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez Núñez filed a complaint similar to the governor’s. On Tuesday the biggest minority party in Puerto Rico, the Popular Democratic Party, said it planned to submit an adversary complaint on different grounds on the same day. …

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Puerto Rico governor names new utility head after board members quit
Source: Reuters, July 18, 2018
 
Puerto Rico’s governor on Wednesday named a new executive director of the bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), following the resignation of its former head and four of the utility’s seven-member board last week.  Jose Ortiz will replace Rafael Diaz-Granados, who quit a day after being named executive director, leaving the utility with no leadership amid a massive restructuring effort following devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria last September.  Diaz-Granados and the four other board members resigned after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosello blasted them for agreeing to pay Diaz-Granados an annual salary of $750,000. The PREPA board unanimously elected Ortiz, an engineer, to the post on Wednesday, Rosello’s office said in a tweet. Ortiz, the fifth PREPA executive director named since the hurricane devastated the island and its electric grid last September, is due to take office on July 23. …

Puerto Rico Bondholders Win Ruling Against U.S.
Source: Andrew Scurria, Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2018
 
A federal judge has refused to absolve the U.S. government of liability for investors’ losses on Puerto Rico bonds, a potential blow to efforts to write down the U.S. territory’s $73 billion debt load.  The ruling issued Friday by Judge Susan G. Braden of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims is an incremental victory for hedge funds fighting to get repaid on the $3 billion in Puerto Rico pension bonds These creditors have targeted the U.S. directly, saying the federal government should make them whole for enacting a 2016 law that set them up for losses.  The lawsuit strikes at the heart of the rescue law, known as Promesa, designed to tackle the U.S. territory’s fiscal crisis. Promesa was designed to avoid a taxpayer bailout of Puerto Rico, creating a court-supervised process for wringing debt reductions from creditors instead. …

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State, federal lawsuits pin defective DC Metro concrete on contractor

Source: Kim Slowey, Construction Dive, July 13, 2018

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Commonwealth of Virginia have filed suit against Universal Concrete Products Corp., the manufacturer of concrete panels for the Washington, D.C., Metro’s $5.8 billion Silver Line project, alleging violations of the False Claims Act and Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, as well as unjust enrichment and payment by mistake, according to court documents. Universal was working on the project under a $6 million purchase order contract with design-builder Capital Rail Constructors (Clark Construction Group and Kiewit Infrastructure South). In the July 9 action against Universal and co-defendants Donald Faust Jr., company president and co-owner, and Andrew Nolan, former quality control manager, the Justice Department and Virginia authorities claim that Universal knowingly provided panels that did not have the required air content for use on the Silver Line project and falsified documents so that it would appear the panels met the project specifications. …

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Contractor botches Silver Line concrete
Source: Associated Press, April 25, 2018

Concrete panels installed in the $2.6 billion project extending the D.C. region’s Metrorail Silver Line to Dulles International Airport are not as durable as they should be. Thousands of areas along the extension will need to be dealt with. And some of the concrete will need to be completely thrown out, despite being already installed. Charles Stark, director of the Silver Line project, said the concrete is supposed to last 100 years but was not mixed properly by a subcontractor. …

Shovels Down: White House Drives Dagger Into Infrastructure Bill

Source: John T. Bennett, Roll Call, May 25, 2018
 
The White House formally drove a dagger into the passage this year of the kind of massive infrastructure package called for by President Donald Trump. What is on the White House’s legislative agenda for the rest of the year includes another tax package, a farm bill, more federal judiciary nominations — and possibly immigration legislation. White House legislative affairs chief Marc Short told reporters Friday that infrastructure will slide into 2019. He blamed election-year politics, saying Democrats have signaled in recent conversations they are uninterested in handing Trump a victory ahead of the midterm elections. …

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Opinion: Rebuilding Schools, Bridges—and Lives
Source: Richard Trumka and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2018

As unions, businesses, engineers and policy makers celebrate Infrastructure Week from May 14-21, we’re reflecting on the investments that add value to America. For every dollar a country spends on public infrastructure, it gets back nearly $3, according to a 2014 study from the International Monetary Fund. Keep this in mind when you hear that the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, has called for $2 trillion to repair, renovate or replace water lines, public schools, bridges and mass transit systems. On top of that, another $2 trillion could make America the global leader in the infrastructure technologies of the future, such as high-speed rail and smart utilities. … When you see that the ASCE’s infrastructure report card gives the nation overall a D+, don’t hang your head. The U.S. can get that grade up. But it won’t happen with a plan like President Trump’s , which would cut Washington’s contribution to infrastructure projects from 80% to 20%, quadrupling the burden on cash-strapped cities and states. The true way forward is to do the opposite: Put the federal government back in the business of building America’s future. …

States That Raise Tolls and Taxes Will Have an Edge in Getting DOT Funds 
Source: Ted Mann, Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2018

States and cities that raise taxes and tolls will have a better chance at winning federal money for roads and bridges, part of a Trump administration strategy to have states carry a bigger portion of infrastructure spending. The move is a result of a Transportation Department overhaul to a popular infrastructure grant program, giving it a new name and tweaking the criteria that will determine which project applications will win federal funding. Under the overhaul, which was launched last week, applicants for grants this year will be judged in part on whether they can show that they have generated “new, non-Federal revenue” to help cover project costs, according to a DOT document. That will mean local agencies that raise taxes or tolls to pay for bridges, transit lines or road improvements will be more likely to win some of the $1.5 billion pool of funding authorized for the program this year. …

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These U.S. Workers Are Being Paid Like It’s the 1980s

Source: Josh Eidelson, Bloomberg, May 25, 2018
 
Thanks to a web of loopholes and limits, the federal government has been green-lighting hourly pay of just $7.25 for some construction workers laboring on taxpayer-funded projects, despite decades-old laws that promise them the “prevailing wage.” Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Labor has formally given approval for contractors to pay $7.25 for specific government-funded projects in six Texas counties, according to letters reviewed by Bloomberg. Those counties are among dozens around the nation where the government-calculated prevailing wage listed for certain work—such as by some carpenters in North Carolina, bulldozer operators in Kansas and cement masons in Nebraska—is just the minimum wage. …

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Inviting Private Sector to Build Roads Raises Wage Questions
Source: Chris Opfer and Jasmine Ye Han, Daily Labor Report, April 13, 2018 (Subscription Required)
 
The Trump administration wants the private sector to take the wheel on many U.S. road and other upgrades, raising questions about whether construction workers will still get the compensation required under federal contracts. The Davis-Bacon Act obligates contractors to pay workers on federally funded construction projects a local prevailing wage and certain benefits set by the Labor Department. The law is meant to ensure that the government doesn’t shortchange workers. But some Republican lawmakers, businesses, and conservative advocacy groups say “prevailing wages” exceed market rates and bloat taxpayer-funded construction projects as a handout to labor unions. Although the law isn’t likely to be scrapped anytime soon, lobbyists have stayed busy pushing to get Davis-Bacon provisions explicitly included in new spending legislation. That activity ticked up following a post-recession infrastructure spending binge and kept the questions coming about which projects require prevailing wages. …

Trump’s Davis-Bacon Quote Turns Construction Industry Heads
Source: Elliot T Dube, Bloomberg BNA, April 14, 2017
 
Construction industry stakeholders got a jolt when President Donald Trump recently approached what a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official called a “third rail issue” for building trades unions: changes to the Davis-Bacon Act. Trump said in a New York Times interview published April 5 that he was “going to make an announcement in two weeks” regarding Davis-Bacon. The law requires contractors on federally funded construction projects to pay prevailing wages for a given area. …

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Putting the Public First in Public-Private Partnerships

Source: Gabrielle Gurley, The American Prospect, April 26, 2018
 
… More than a decade later, the Port of Miami Tunnel is the marquee example of a public-private transportation infrastructure partnership. … But the tunnel’s success is deceptive, since the unique factors that converged in South Florida cannot be replicated everywhere. For every Port of Miami Tunnel, scores of ill-conceived projects dot the American landscape. The United States lags behind not only in basic maintenance of existing assets at the end of their life cycles but in building the next generation of roads, bridges, rail, tunnels, and aviation projects. With public funds scarce in a climate of tax-cutting and budgetary austerity, the risk is that the contactor/partner pays the up-front costs but sticks future generations of taxpayers and rate-payers with exorbitant charges. … But states and municipalities can learn to appreciate the differences between partnerships that put the public first and the rip-offs that erode public confidence in government and drain public coffers.

… The Trump administration’s version of an infrastructure initiative relies heavily on private financing, which may or may not materialize. … But the Trump framework is only an exaggeration of recent trends. At best, new fiscal pressures can lead public officials to get creative, seeking private partners who may bring superior engineering, financing, and legal expertise, and better attention to maintenance and operations. But private-sector involvement does not automatically mean a better outcome. Citizens and public officials often forget that the private sector’s prime motive is profit, not philanthropy. If a firm cannot clear a good return on an investment, either the deal will not materialize or the terms will be onerous to the public. Public debates can be marred by false expectations, and confusion or obfuscation of what distinguishes a good partnership from a rip-off. …

New Jersey bill seeks P3 expansion

Source: Andrew Coen, Bond Buyer, April 13, 2018 (Subscription Required)
 
New Jersey lawmakers are pushing again for an increase in the use of public-private partnerships to jump-start infrastructure improvements in the cash-strapped state. Two and a half years after former Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed an expansion of New Jersey’s P3 program, a state senate committee advanced legislation on April 5 that if enacted would permit localities to enter into P3 agreements for building and highway infrastructure projects. The measure would make local governments, school districts, public authorities and state colleges eligible to enter into P3s where the private entity would assume full or partial financial and administrative responsibility for capital projects. …

Cracks in Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto waterfront plan after fanfare

Source: Jeff Gray, The Globe and Mail, February 23, 2018

… Sidewalk Labs, the unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc. selected to help transform a parcel of land known as Quayside, at the foot of Parliament Street, listed off a dizzying array of technologies it could develop in Canada’s largest city, then sell elsewhere: cameras and sensors that detect pedestrians at traffic lights or alert cleanup crews when garbage bins overflow; robotic vehicles that whisk away garbage in underground tunnels; heated bike lanes to melt snow; even a new street layout to accommodate a fleet of self-driving cars. Four months have passed since Waterfront Toronto, the municipal-provincial-federal development agency, named Sidewalk its “innovation and funding partner” for the project – time enough for some of the gee-whiz talk of hyper-energy-efficient modular buildings and “taxibots” to be replaced by a rising chorus of critics both inside and outside City Hall. Many are concerned about the data Sidewalk could collect. Some say the deal has been shrouded in secrecy. Others fear the company’s vague but sweeping plans could threaten the city’s authority over a massive swath of waterfront or even its public transit system and other key services. … Meanwhile, despite briefings from Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk executives, some city councillors say they still have little idea what Sidewalk actually intends to do – or where. …

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Beware Of Google’s Intentions
Source: Susan Crawford, Wired, February 1, 2018

In partnering with local governments to create infrastructure, Alphabet says it is only trying to help. Local governments shouldn’t believe it. ….. Beginning last fall, Toronto has been getting a flood of publicity about a deal with Sidewalk Labs, part of Google spinoff Alphabet. Reports describe the deal as giving Sidewalk the authority to build in an undeveloped 12-acre portion of the city called Quayside. The idea is that Sidewalk will collect data about everything from water use to air quality to the perambulations of Quayside’s future populace and use that data to run energy, transport, and all other systems. Swarms of sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets will be constantly on duty, monitoring and modulating.

But Toronto recently revealed that deal has put it in a tough place. A nonprofit development corporation, not the city, made the arrangement with Google that sparked all the publicity—the city itself doesn’t appear to have known a deal with Google was in the works. Now the situation appears messy: The details of the arrangement are not public, the planning process is being paid for by Google, and Google won’t continue funding that process unless government authorities promise they’ll reach a final agreement that aligns with Google’s interests. Those interests include Google’s desire to expand its Toronto experiments beyond that 12-acre Quayside plot.….

Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Could Destroy Our Nation’s Water Systems

Source: Michelle Chen, The Nation, January 30, 2018
 
The draft outline of the zombie infrastructure program has resurfaced again with a leak to Axios—and confirms what many feared: The White House hopes to privatize areas of government at a discount, opening up more public services to abuse at the hands of corporations. Trump plans to expand private-activity bonds for infrastructure construction, “to benefit the public,” with a definition of “public benefit” that’s more solid-gold toilet than Hoover Dam. Exhibit A is the plan to expand private management of our waterways, including efforts to mitigate pollution and environmental harm that tends to result from the same private-sector control. In other words, laundering public money to help corporate America break stuff and then buy it. There’s a heavy focus on funding privately managed road and bridge projects, and goodies like highway-rest-stop commercialization and encouraging private leasing of infrastructure. …

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Cashing in on Water Crises: Public-Private Partnerships Are Not the Solution
Source: Julia Kassem, Truthout, January 13, 2018

Across the US, cost-cutting municipalities are looking to private companies and contractors to fix aging infrastructure. However, these privatization practices contribute to increased water bills and jeopardize water quality, endangering one of residents’ most basic needs. We can gain some perspective on the consequences of water privatization by looking to a glaring overseas example: In Lebanon, mismanagement of infrastructure has provided ample opportunity for privatization to proliferate. … The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the privatizing wing of the World Bank Group, continues to invest in water privatization companies such as Veolia, and more recently, SUEZ. The companies are setting their sights on ailing infrastructural systems in the Global South in places like the Arab world, particularly in response to the abandonment of public-private contracts in some large US cities. … In Lebanon and around the world, the basic issues of water quality and safety must find a place in policy-oriented discussions over water. If this occurs, countries and municipalities stand a chance of eschewing private-public partnerships — and ensuring that water is not treated as simply another commodity to be sold.

$300 Billion War Beneath the Street: Fighting to Replace America’s Water Pipes
Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, November 10, 2017
 
America is facing a crisis over its crumbling water infrastructure, and fixing it will be a monumental and expensive task.  Two powerful industries, plastic and iron, are locked in a lobbying war over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade. … To more directly reach towns and counties across the country, the plastics industry is also leaning on the American City County Exchange, a new group that gives corporations extraordinary capacity to influence public policy at the city and county levels. The group operates under the auspices of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a wider effort funded by the petrochemicals billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch that has drawn scrutiny for helping corporations and local politicians write legislation behind closed doors. …

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