Benjamin Dierker Speaks at Law Review Symposium

14 Apr 2022, Posted in All Posts, Blog Posts
law review symposium

This month, Aii Director of Public Policy Benjamin Dierker spoke at the 2022 Indiana Law Review Symposium: “Transportation Infrastructure Law and Policy: The Road Forward.” The event, featured attorneys and researchers from a range of public policy spheres that intersect with transportation infrastructure.

Joining a panel titled “The Future of Transportation Infrastructure,” Mr. Dierker shared insights from recent Aii publications, including Ensuring Resilient Infrastructure and Climate Balance published in the Pipeline & Gas Journal.

See the discussion through this recap. Highlighted questions represent those Mr. Dierker responded to during the panel or brief points prepared in advance. Questions without highlights were either asked to other panelists or time did not allow them to be asked.




Indiana Law Review 2022 Virtual Symposium: “Transportation Infrastructure Law and Policy: The Road Forward”

Panel 3: The Future of Transportation Infrastructure

Panelists: Benjamin Dierker, Beth Osborne, Joe Halso, Tracy Hadden Loh


“We have a wealth of knowledge in this panel. I will start with a question to each of our panelists about the status of our transportation infrastructure and their specific work. The remaining questions with be posed to the broader group.”


Question 1: This is a broad question, but let’s start by giving a quick summary of the status of the United States transportation infrastructure. How would each of you describe the situation, and why?

For challenges, I would point to over 43,000 structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. The Highway Trust Fund facing insolvency. Certain public policies undermining one another (Like vehicle efficiency standards and the gas tax), and even regulatory roadblocks preventing safety improvements (Like the Federal Railroad Administration preventing the roll out of autonomous track inspections). Optimistically, though I would point to emerging best practices and technologies poised to improve public safety and transportation infrastructure. Drones and damage prevention technology are great examples.



Question 2: Beth, can you discuss Transportation for America’s policy proposal to redesign or deconstruct highways as an innovative solution to our infrastructure challenges?


Question 3: Joe, you have worked extensively on transportation electrification. Can you discuss how this benefits consumers, particularly low-income consumers?


Question 4: Benjamin, in your recent paper, A Sustainable Energy Model, you argue for voluntary carbon offsets. Can you tell us more about this policy and how it can lead to a more sustainable energy model?

The model I present in the paper is a three-part energy plan. It argued for: (1) Natural Gas – because it is low carbon, and needed for energy as well as supply chain uses. (2) Pipelines – nearly 3 million miles already and safest most effective transport option. But also available for hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and other future fuels. (3) Carbon offsets – essentially counteract any emissions generated in a project.


The carbon offset piece is interesting because it has the potential to create an entirely new industry and a circular economy. Sticking with pipeline operators as an example, their daily operations would still produce whatever emissions they generate, but they could pay for an equivalent CO2 removal so it was like they never emitted. As an example, Direct Air Capture technology can literally pull CO2 straight out of the air. So the carbon offset would be a payment for the capital and operational expenses needed for a Direct Air Capture project to remove that amount of CO2. But that same CO2 can then be sold by the Direct Air Capture operator, generating revenue. So you could have money coming in from offset purchases and carbon sales. The DAC project gains funds to expand and become self-sustaining, and if there is money to be made in capturing carbon, other people enter the market to start capturing and selling carbon. It can be sold in different forms and for use in greenhouses or for fertilizers, carbonation for soft drinks, to be incorporated into building materials, or even animal feeds.


Ultimately, this model recognizes energy needs and realities but could kickstart climate solutions and help to reverse emissions in the long term.


Question 5: Tracy, can you discuss how COVID-19 changed communities and their transportation needs? How can communities rebuild in a more resilient way?


Question 6: Congress and the White House sought to address some environmental resilience issues through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included $284 billion for transportation and more for environmental remediation. What impact will these federal funds have? Does it go far enough? Does it go too far?


Question 7: What changes are needed to transportation fuel in the United States? Can and should we shift to all-electric? Or is there a way to maintain the use of fossil fuels in a sustainable way?

With existing policy, we can’t switch to all electric fleets. We would need to ramp up domestic mining and still allow for robust oil and gas exploration and production domestically. EVs require rare earth elements, but also fossil fuels. Mining itself is dependent on fossil fuel machines. Components are transported by fossil fuel shipping and transit methods, and ultimately oil and gas are needed components of Electric Vehicles themselves, everything from tires to paints/inks/dyes and essential plastic components.


Question 8: In an ideal world, what would you have liked to see in the infrastructure bill regarding transportation and environmental resilience?

People don’t always view pipelines as transportation infrastructure, but they are key transportation methods for liquids and gases. They are mostly underground and out of sight, so construction activity and excavation frequently damage pipelines – which is a huge safety and environmental concern. There is a strong correlation between construction spending and this kind of damage. And with the infrastructure bill pumping billions of dollars into infrastructure and construction spending, I would have liked to see a damage prevention provision to mitigate damage to pipelines and underground infrastructure. Simple technology is proven to do this, and it was a significant missed opportunity.


Question 9: Infrastructure improvements have become an increasingly polarizing topic. What opportunities are there for collaboration across party lines?


Question 10: A critical policy when it comes to discussing funding for transportation is the gas tax. What is the gas tax, and in what ways does it need reform as we shift towards more fuel-efficient vehicles?

The gas tax is a great example of counterproductive policies, where good innovation actually undermines progress. Over time, innovation has led the vehicle fleet to become more fuel efficient and heavier. You also have upward pressure on that innovation by DOT raising the CAFE standards. The gas tax hasn’t changed since 1993. So, both natural and policy-pressured innovation is adding more wear and tear to the roads with less and less revenue per mile to the HTF. There are reform options at the HTF level – specifically ensuring funds raised for the Highway Account are not spent by the Mass Transit Account or ensuring funds raised by road use ostensibly for wear and tear are actually used for that maintenance instead of building new roads and leaving no funds left for maintenance. Other options include gas tax increases or indexing for inflation. Alternatives include things like vehicle miles traveled fees, ending the use fo fuel as a proxy for road use.


Question 11: How does the broader built environment play into our changing transportation infrastructure? For example, are there housing policies or city planning policies that complement sustainable transportation policies?


Question 12: What role does public transportation play in the future of transportation innovation?


Question 13: How do autonomous and unmanned vehicles impact our transportation infrastructure? How quickly do you foresee a shift toward that model?

I think the question is geared towards driverless cars, but drones are arguably the most important unmanned vehicles right now. Pairing drones with cameras and artificial intelligence is currently enabling inspections for roads, railroad tracks, and bridges to identify deficiencies and go where people can’t go as safely or easily.


Question 14: What are the relevant comparisons between truck and rail in freight movement? Is one preferable to another in terms of sustainability?

In very broad strokes, trains are preferable to trucks across a number of metrics. But trucks are vital for short routes, and rail is essential for longer routes. These are really complementary freight modes, especially with the rise of intermodal containers. Rail can move a lot of freight a long distance very efficiently, while trucks are the only option for short, dynamic routes or for distribution.


Thinking about emissions: 100 rail cars of lumber from Charleston, SC (where I am) to Indianapolis would take about 380 trucks instead of one train. The net effect of using trucks instead of rail would be to add 310 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Another metric is fuel efficiency: On average, with one gallon of fuel, a train can move a ton of freight about 480 miles. For a truck, a single gallon would take a ton about 140 miles.


Question 15: What is an emerging issue in infrastructure law that attorneys and policymakers should be aware of? Especially in a state like Indiana, which is adding to its population, with a 4.7 % growth since 2010. 

Excavation damage to underground infrastructure. In Indiana, there are over 12,000+ incidents each year where pipelines and buried utilities are damaged from digging. With a growing population, there will be more issues like this for two reasons: first, more people will mean more demand for services and utilities. That will require ever more water lines, telecom lines, cables, wires, and other utilities to serve this population. Second, it will mean more construction activity to put up apartment buildings, restaurants, roads, and more to accommodate this growing population. More buried utilities means more chance of striking something wherever a dig takes place, and more construction means more ground breaking. Unless or until there is greater adherence to best practices and incorporation of innovative technologies in the state’s damage prevention code, excavation damage is likely to increase.



Benjamin Dierker’s Bio:

Benjamin Dierker is the Director of Public Policy at the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii), where he researches the intersection of economics, law, and public policy on issues ranging from transportation and energy to technology and infrastructure. A Texas native, Benjamin is a graduate of Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Economics and Master of Public Administration. He holds a J.D. from the Scalia Law School at George Mason University and is a member of the Washington, D.C. bar.


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.