Talking Michigan Transportation

A $1.2 trillion investment in infrastructure, some historic, global context

November 15, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 81
Talking Michigan Transportation
A $1.2 trillion investment in infrastructure, some historic, global context
Show Notes Transcript

This week, as President Biden signs the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a conversation about the historic context of the legislation and what it can mean to Michigan. 

Andy Doctoroff, a Huntington Woods lawyer who teaches a class that he created at the University of Michigan Law School focusing on infrastructure, joins the conversation to offer his insights.  

Doctoroff explains why he believes the $550 billion in new money authorized in the legislation is historically significant. He talks about the challenge of reaching a compromise with such heightened partisanship and the need for strong leadership to ensure the success of the program. 

Comparing the approach to investing in building infrastructure in other countries, he offers insight on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar global infrastructure development strategy. 

He also talks about how the IIJA compares to other historic infrastructure investments, including the Transcontinental Railroad, the Rural Electrification Act, and the Interstate Highway System, as outlined in this VOA video

Emphasizing the enhanced human connectivity offered by the broadband investments, as well as the rebuilding of roads and bridges.  

Later, Doctoroff, who also has a contract with the State of Michigan to help oversee construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, offers a progress update. 


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: As President Joe Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, I’ll be speaking with Andy Doctoroff, a friend of the podcast and repeat visitor. In addition to his work overseeing the building of the Gordy Howe International Bridge, Andy has a particularly interesting perspective on this bill and what it means because of a class he created and has been teaching at the law school at the University of Michigan, which focuses on infrastructure investment, innovative contracting, P3s, all kinds of things. I’ve been privileged to speak to his class a couple of times, and I’m always impressed with the good questions and how engaged the students are and how interested they are in things that some of us might think are boring to real people. So, Andy, thanks for taking time to do this.

Andy Doctoroff: Hi, Jeff. You're welcome. Happy to be here again.

Cranson: So, let's start I guess high level. I know that high level, there's people that want to parse the numbers and say that it's really not a $1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill, and it's actually a $550 billion dollar bill because that's the new money. $550 billion dollars is still a heck of a lot of money to put into the system over five years. What have you learned about this as you've been studying it and talking about it in your classes?

Doctoroff: What I’ve learned is a few things. First and foremost is that it is a historically significant infrastructure bill. In one piece of legislation, it allocates more money, adjusted for inflation, than did the interstate road legislation that was clearly landmark legislation in the 1950s. Now, they're very different bills of course because this piece of legislation allocates money to lots of different priorities in infrastructure assets, whereas the interstate highway program focused largely on one thing. So, you can't compare apples and oranges, but this legislation really is the federal government, for the first time in generations, saying, We've got a real obligation to look at our infrastructure, to improve our infrastructure without relying on what some would consider gimmicks, including private sector participation that is unclear.” That's not to say, Jeff, that this gets us to everywhere we need to go in terms of all of our infrastructure’s assets. This bill doesn't do that, but it is a significant, long stride in that direction.

Cranson: Well, I guess another important difference between this, and the interstate bills is that, you know, those were done under a Republican president, and the efforts in the Senate were led by a Democratic senator by the name of Al Gore Sr.

Doctoroff: Yep, that is a big difference.

Cranson: Talk about what you've learned about this willingness to invest. You've taken a hard look at China, obviously, where we all know, you know, they're building high-speed rail, new roads, pretty much everything, planes, trains, automobiles, and we're fighting over, you know, much smaller amounts. I mean, put that in context for us.

Doctoroff: Well, one of the things in my class that we look at is, you know, infrastructure in autocratic countries versus infrastructure in democracies, western countries. And there really is a huge world of difference. And, you know, on one level there's almost, like, infrastructure envy when you look at the autocratic countries like China, which is capable of, you know, conjuring out of thin air a global strategy called the Belt and Road Initiative that, you know, is contemplated to result in investments anywhere between one trillion dollars and eight or nine trillion dollars in just a few short years. And that and, you know, that Belt and Road Initiative mirrors what China has done domestically, which is to invest in high-speed rail, road building to such an extent that we in America can't even fathom that. In the last few years, China has built 22,000, you know, kilometers of high-speed rail, and America has done zero. And similarly, in the last few years, in a three-year period, China used more cement than United States did throughout the entire 20th century. So, the scale of what China is doing because of its autocratic government will simply blow people away when you appreciate that scale. With that said, there are lots and lots of downsides to the Chinese system, to an autocratic system, in terms of white elephants, inefficiency, lack of accountability, a lot of default in debts by local governments, the list goes on and on and on. So, there really is, at the end of the day, a question if you're just looking at infrastructure and not the implications, of course, of living in an autocratic governing system, you know, which one is better or not better. The truth of the matter is both systems have a lot of advantages and disadvantages.

Cranson: So, when you think about the efficiencies and that idea of getting the money out, you always hear the term, “shovel ready.” And that's what you heard during the, you know, ARA infrastructure plan in the late 2000s, the American Rescue and Recovery Act. With what you're hearing now, how do you balance that and how do you advise, I guess, governments to balance it? What you're talking about is absolutely true, and I know you've cited examples in your class about, you know, the Big Dig in Boston and especially Robert Moses aggressive highway and bridge building taking on buildings, and in the end, it actually made gridlock worse, not better. So, how do you advise people to spend the money quickly but judiciously?

Doctoroff: Well, I personally believe that there are a lot of oversight mechanisms that we can adopt that would make our decision making more informed and more efficient. And frankly, when it comes to infrastructure, those metrics do not exist, nor is there any analytic bureaucracy that allows us to contextualize infrastructure investments and adopt and recognize best practices. So, there are a lot of things that governments can do to, you know, ensure that if there is a shovel ready project, or any other project, they're operationalized or implemented, you know, as efficiently and as well as possible. My personal opinion, though, is it all comes down to leadership. It all comes down to leadership at all levels of the government and at all levels of a specific individual project, and leadership has certain attributes. And we can get into how I personally see that, but you have to have people who are paying attention to details, people who are communicating, building relationships, forging alignments, forging trust and communicating, avoiding groupthink, avoiding siloed discussions. And if you have all of those things happening, the likelihood, and history does clearly support this, of having optimal results has greatly increased.

Cranson: So, that brings us to, you know, something else that's in your portfolio, and that's being the non-DOT point person for the state helping be a liaison with Canada as we jointly build this bridge between Canada and the U.S., the Gordie Howe International Bridge. What has that brought to you in terms of what you can share with your class and talk about in your class and make them, you know, more enlightened about what goes on with a modern-day bridge building project like that?

Doctoroff: Well, obviously I’ve worked on the Gordie Howe, which is a success. And I’ve worked on other projects that have not been nearly as successful, not in Michigan, outside of Michigan. Ultimately, it does come down to alignment because if the parties, you know, have that alignment as to what the goal is — what are we trying to do? — then that alignment creates what I would consider trust. And once that trust is there then the building blocks for resolving the inevitable thorny problems that arise in any complicated infrastructure project will be there too, so those problems become less intractable. And, you know, once you have the alignment that creates trust and a shared mission then you have to worry, and I would say the word worry is the correct word, about how people actually get along. Are they availing themselves of expertise? Are they communicating in a way that, you know, facilitates the identification and resolution of problems? And I really have learned over the years that there's no shortcut. You can't just look at an org chart or a spreadsheet and say, “Oh, the solution lies right there. We can see it.” It involves people to people interactions and not just building but exploiting the trust that exists from lots of shared experiences and alignments between governments and other stakeholders to make sure that you're on the same page, and you have a view of the same north star.

Cranson: So, when you say that, you know, the Gordie Howe’s a success, why don't you take a minute to provide an update on where things are right now?

Doctoroff: Well, you know, it's a project that is many years old. And we've had so many challenges to overcome, whether it's utility relocation, whether it's land acquisition, whether it's, you know, understanding complicated regulatory schemes and regimens, whether it's basically understanding how to have a framework agreement so that all the parties, you know, know what the project is about and what we're trying to accomplish, and we've done that. So, where we are right now is we're building the darn thing. And we're building the thing in a way that, for the first time, is visible. You can go to southwest Detroit, or you can go to Ontario, and see two piers, you know, rising from the ground that are about 270 feet tall. The state-of-the-art infrastructure projects are now well under construction. State-of-the-art bridge overpasses are well under construction, and I think that will surprise people as to just their quality and their multi-purpose uses. So, we're making tons of progress steadily and surely.

Cranson: When you talk about some of those challenges, you know, both regulatory, environmental mitigation, land acquisition, working with the neighborhoods, and working with Canada where our partners with the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority have been so good at communicating and understanding the needs for community benefits, all those things. But could you have dreamed coming into this that here we share a border, we share so many customs, we share a language, yet so many times it seems like we're not speaking the same language? I mean, what kind of a challenge has that been?

Doctoroff: It's been a challenge that I, frankly, confronted my entire career as a commercial litigator because I recognize that people who, you know, are from the same country, often from the same community, can view things through very different prisms. And when that happens, there's tons of potential for misunderstanding and dispute. The key, therefore, and unfortunately, in some people's minds, I’m pretty good at this, is through talking and communication and to step into the shoes of the other side and say, “What are they thinking? What are they looking at? What are their concerns?” And for the other side to be willing to do the same. And this project has enjoyed its successes, I believe, because, you know, we do that. We are trying to be as empathetic to overcome those difference of perspectives, those barriers, those cultural differences that actually do exist to forge a shared understanding of facts and a shared vision of what solutions look like. And no project, particularly one as complicated as Gordie Howe or others that I’ve worked on, will avoid those type of challenges. It's really how do you forge alliances in a shared language, not English, but a shared language when it comes to, you know, problem identification that allows you to identify and solve?

Cranson: Yeah, we've all learned a lot that's for sure. Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.


Narrator: [Car honking] Know before you go. Head on over to Mi Drive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to

Cranson: Today is the day, actually we're recording on Monday, November 15, when President Biden will sign this historic infrastructure plan. We should point out, since we talked about the Gordie Howe International Bridge, that it really doesn't have any impact there since Canada is financing that project, but it does have a tremendous impact and meaning for Michigan all over the state. So, let's listen to something the President had to say Monday at the bill signing.

President Biden: For all the folks at home, I know this day matters to you as well. The world has changed, and we have to be ready. My fellow Americans, today, I want you to know: We hear you, and we see you. We can do this. We can deliver real results for real people. We see in ways that really matter each and every day, to each person out there. And we’re taking a monumental step forward to build back better as a nation.

Cranson: What do you think, based on what you've seen so far, is the best thing about the plan?

Doctoroff: I think what it is is a blueprint for priorities about infrastructure investments that, you know, will be applicable in every single state that allow us to, basically, improve people's lives. And you said at the beginning that, you know, some people might not see the interesting, you know, aspects of infrastructure, but I personally look at infrastructure through the lens of concern and community because what really it is connecting, connecting people, places, and things so that we can have better lives. So, if you look at what the infrastructure legislation is doing, it's connecting people through high-speed internet. It's connecting people through, obviously, better bridges, through high-speed rail. And it's doing so in a way that takes into account the need to start pivoting to alternative energy and taking into account climate change. So, for all those reasons, Michigan is going to be benefiting because all of the people in the state and all the things that we have need to be better connected. It's spiritually important. It's logistically important. It's economically important. It's important for all those reasons. And if this gives us a really good head start in making our state a better, more connected state then that's just awesome. We have to implement it. It's got to be implemented, you know, in a smart way and in an efficient way. But, man, what an opportunity we've got, and let's make the most of it.

Cranson: Amen. Really well said. I think you're right about connections too. In fact, I almost think maybe they should have thought about incorporating a C into that acronym somehow to really put a fine point on the human element, and that's what the connections are.

Doctoroff: Yeah, and—sorry.

Cranson: No, fine. Go ahead.

Doctoroff: What I was going to say is I start and end my class at the U of M Law School about talking about the issue of connections. Connections are really another synonym for relationships, and that's why I think this infrastructure is about how we relate to each other each other as a society. And I personally, as someone who's watched this legislation so closely for so many months, am thrilled that it's bipartisan, particularly in the Senate, because in order to have this bill passed you had to forge real relationships between people who think differently but are arriving at a set of shared priorities that reflect consensus views of what the role of government is. And therefore, it's really a good reason to celebrate a very, very heartwarming milestone, I think.

Cranson: Thanks, Andy. I think that's helpful.

Doctoroff: Bye-bye.


Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.