I is for infrastructure.
I is also for irony.
Republicans and Democrats are still debating how much of the former the $1.2 billion infrastructure bill will actually deliver. But it is already delivering quite a bit of the latter.
This bill – passed primarily by Democrats – will benefit lots of Republican-voting rural areas. Will that help Democrats make headway in winning back at least a smidge of the support they once had in rural Virginia (or rural America, for that matter)? No, probably not, not unless Democrats pull off one of the greatest sales jobs of all time. On the contrary, the infrastructure bill will redound to the benefit of Republicans, who will be able to both claim they voted against higher spending and then claim credit for every ribbon-cutting they will preside over in their districts.
Here’s how that will work – or already is working.
Sarah Vogelsong of the Virginia Mercury reported recently that coal mining is seeing a resurgence in Southwest Virginia: “Since Aug. 10, the Virginia Department of Energy has received applications for 10 new licenses to sell coal and one request to reactivate an existing license. Seven new permits to mine coal are also under review, with 11 additional permits in the process of being transferred to new owners.”
Why this sudden interest in coal when it seems all we hear about is how utilities are shutting down coal-fired plants and many corporate consumers are demanding renewables? She tells us that two things are driving this: in the short term, a more robust economy as the world starts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and, in the long term, the anticipated business from the infrastructure bill.
She goes on to report that “virtually all” of the new licensing requests are for metallurgical coal used in making steel, not thermal coal (or steam coal) used in power plants. Here’s where we must pause for a brief science lesson. Not all coal is the same. Metallurgical coal – met coal, for short – is low in ash, low in sulfur, low in phosphorus. When burned, it produces coke, a hard and porous rock that is used to turn iron ore into steel. (OK, for a science lesson this is a pretty broad overview, but you get the idea.) Thermal coal has more ash, more sulfur, more phosphorus – and doesn’t produce coke. It’s burned in power plants to produce steam, which in turn is used to produce electricity.
When we hear people talk about how they want to shut down fossil fuels and keep the coal in the ground, they’re talking about thermal coal – because at present there’s no realistic way to do without met coal, unless, that is, you want to do without steel. Yes, a Swedish company this summer produced a batch of steel made from renewable sources, specifically hydrogen. Maybe someday that will change how we make steel and render met coal obsolete, but that someday is not today. (Of note: That first shipment of hydrogen-produced steel went to Volvo for use in building trucks. Volvo also has a truck plant in Pulaski County. If “green” steel ever comes to the United States, might it come first to Pulaski County? If it does, you read it here first.)
In any case, right now we still need coal to make steel. The Mercury reports that the infrastructure bill includes $850 million in spending for things that need steel, which industry officials estimate will amount to “40-45 million tons of steel over the life of the projects.” No wonder the head of the Metallurgical Coal Producers Association – based in Grundy – told the Mercury that “you’re going to see a prolonged increase of demand for steel, and therefore you will see what we think will be a prolonged demand for metallurgical coal.”
Put another way, Democrats just voted to burn a lot more coal, although that’s not how they’d frame it. Nor are voters in coal country likely to thank Democrats for reviving a part of the coal industry – the met coal part. As late as 2005, Buchanan County was still voting for the Democratic candidate for governor, giving Tim Kaine 52.2% of the vote that year (down from the 65.7% it gave Mark Warner just four years earlier). This year, just 15% of Buchanan voters cast ballots for the Democratic candidate for governor. Still, it’s worth asking: Will we see any Democrats showing up in coal country to take credit for met coal’s resurgence – and make the case that Republicans effectively voted to keep some of those mines idle? If that casino in Bristol were open, maybe we could all take bets on whether and when we’d seen President Joe Biden in Buchanan County?
The ironies of the infrastructure bill aren’t confined to coal country, though. They extend through rural America. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, who helped negotiate the bill, says that the bill “will bring dramatic relief for rural Virginia.” I’m inclined to believe him; I’m just not inclined to believe it will produce political results for Democrats.
Warner says that thanks to the infrastructure bill, “we are going to finally make some of the improvements on 81 we’ve been talking about for the last 20 years.” As someone who has to drive on that interstate, I say “Hallelujah!” – although my language is somewhat different whenever I get stuck between two semis trying to go downhill. Or uphill. Or both. However, I also know that I-81 in Virginia passes through just two localities that vote Democratic – Staunton and Harrisonburg. It comes close to a few others – such as Roanoke and Blacksburg – but the electoral reality is that I-81 runs through some of the reddest parts of the state outside the aforementioned coal counties. Republican politicians will be the ones who preside over every groundbreaking.
Warner points out there’s money for rail in the bill. Amtrak is already slated to extend service from Roanoke to Christiansburg in coming years and the great hope is someday we’ll have passenger rail all the way to Bristol. Democratic politicians rightly claimed plenty of credit for that New River Valley extension (although it didn’t seem to do Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County, much good in the recent election). If Amtrak ever does roll west of the New River Valley, it’ll be Republicans on the platform in Bristol to welcome it. (To be fair, Republican state legislators from Southwest Virginia are very much in favor of passenger rail to Bristol. My point is that virtually all Republicans in Congress voted against this bill, saying it was too much money and for a lot of the wrong things. Maybe it is. I’m not here to litigate that one way or another; I’m just intrigued to see all the ways that Republican politicians, at all levels, will benefit from the bill.)
Finally, there’s the money for broadband. “With $65 billion in broadband funding, every home in the valley, Southside and Southwest will have affordable high speed internet connections,” Warner says. As one of those homes that doesn’t have broadband internet, I can’t begin to tell you what a difference this will make, although I will try. Right now, I often have to go sit outside the Fincastle library to mooch off the Wi-Fi to get enough juice to upload photos to Cardinal News. My daughter recently had a virtual baby shower; my wife couldn’t log in from home because what little internet we have off a small hotspot is too shaky to support Zoom. Broadband is the one part of the infrastructure bill that might cause some red counties to turn blue – or, more realistically, a lighter shade of red.
Demographer Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service recently showed off some eye-popping statistics about a) population declines in rural Virginia and b) the one trend that might reverse those, the trend of people working from home. When I talk to public officials across Southwest and Southside, they almost universally hold out high hope for remote working to bring an influx of new residents – particularly younger ones who might someday produce babies to further increase the population. Whether this much-ballyhooed rural renaissance actually happens, we can’t say yet. This is a trend that, if it happens, will take years to play out. (We have some anecdotal evidence of people moving out of cities to log in from some bucolic rural setting, but the number of examples it takes to provide a good talking point and the number of examples it takes to really change the demographics are two different things.) In the short run, any revival of rural economies will benefit Republicans because that’s who’s in charge, and if you’re in charge and good things happen, you always get the credit, whether you deserve it or not. In the long run, new demographics might change the politics of some of these counties. Just look at how Texas is drifting closer and closer to being a swing state. Still, the numbers required to turn Republican-voting rural counties into Democratic-voting ones are so daunting as to be unrealistic.
The locality with the highest percentage of remote workers is Nelson County, where a staggering 11.7% of the workforce works from home. In the most recent election, Republican Glenn Youngkin carried Nelson by 4,259 votes to 3,346 for Democrat Terry McAuliffe – a margin of 913 votes. That means to turn Nelson blue, 914 Democratic-voting remote workers would have to move in. More than that, actually, because we can’t assume that all – or even most – remote workers are Democrats. There probably are some rural counties, on the outer rim of major metros, where we might see some political changes as an influx of remote workers changes their demographics. I’m thinking of rural counties where the population is gaining anyway – such as Greene County outside Charlottesville, which saw its population soar nearly 12% during the past decade. Over time, a county like that might get remade anyway.
But to change the politics of, say, Buchanan County, where Youngkin defeated McAuliffe 5,083 to 903, broadband would have to inspire a net gain of 4,181 Democrats to move into town. Republicans in Buchanan County can rest assured that broadband will not disturb their political hegemony.
Rural broadband has rightly been likened to rural electrification in the 1930s. One of the greatest Southern songwriters, Jason Isbell, once wrote a song about that when he was with the Drive-By Truckers. The relevant part of “TVA” goes like this:
So his mama sat down, wrote a letter to FDR,
Then a couple days later, couple of county men came in a car,
Rode out in the field, told his daddy to put down the plow.
He helped build the dam that gave power to most of the South.
So I thank God for the TVA,
Thank God for the TVA,
When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay,
Thank God for the TVA.
I’m pretty sure that nobody will be writing songs praising Biden for rural broadband (although perhaps they should).
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A final note: It’s often said that American infrastructure has fallen behind the rest of the world. Donald Trump himself said so on the night he was elected president in 2016. He was right. We really are falling apart, and falling behind. In 2018, I had the opportunity to visit Australia. As a smug, self-centered American, I always figured a place like Australia would be somewhat behind the United States. How wrong I was. Melbourne was a gleaming metropolis where everything felt new and high-tech. I saw this immediately at the airport, where there were fancy terminals to validate our passports – unlike anything I’d ever seen at any American airport. From public transport in the city to lavatories at restaurants out in the country, everything seemed state-of-the-art. When we got home – or, at least part way home, to the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina – we went to a nearby Denny’s for breakfast or maybe lunch. By then we were so jet-lagged after 18 or so hours of flying from Melbourne to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Charlotte that we had no idea. But I remember this clearly: The hand-dryer in the restroom was broken. Nothing we encountered in Australia had been broken. Nothing. That was my first vivid memory on returning to the U.S., a broken piece of machinery. And that’s how I knew we were really at home.