The TIGER sleeps tonight (in Staples)

The second round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants are landing just as a tumultuous election season is coming to an end. In "normal" times, the grants -- nearly $600 million worth -- would allow politicians to claim they are doing something to, as the name implies, invest in transportation and thus generate an economic recovery. This time around that claim seems to have much less traction.

There was a pair of fascinating blog posts last week talking about the lack of support for infrastructure spending outside of the small group of wonkish advocates and special interests. The posts were based on a report from the Pew Center on the States that showed, contrary to political myth, that the public does not place a high priority on transportation spending and people are not enthusiastic about funding programs that resemble TIGER II.

Eric Jaffe, of The Infrastructurist, wrote a piece called New Report Shows States Want to Cut Infrastructure Spending. In it he writes about the study saying,

...few respondents preferred to protect infrastructure spending over health care or education. They were also opposed to funding infrastructure through tax hikes...

Jaffe points out that there is public misperception about how much money is actually spent on infrastructure. He also laments the lack of understanding on behalf of the public.

Nothing against health care and education spending, of course. But why are people so quick to dismiss the importance of infrastructure improvements? Part of the problem is that people not only see the stimulus as a failure, they also mistake is for an infrastructure plan.

Jaffe quotes another good commentary by Ken Orski at Infrastructure USA titled Living in Denial. Orski probes deeper into the American psyche, giving some examples of politicians that have benefited from opposing infrastructure spending. One example he cites is that of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who have received overwhelming support from his constituents for canceling spending on a $9-$14 billion rail tunnel under the Hudson River. I think Orski nails the prevailing sentiment of Americans (even though he ascribes it to "congressional lawmakers") in this statement:

But rightly or wrongly, congressional lawmakers often discount cries about “crumbling infrastructure” as self-serving demands for more government money, often for projects that yield small economic return.

The fifth finding of the Pew report summarizes this quite well.

Finding #5: Lack of Trust and Desire for Reform

Residents are widely distrustful of state government and believe it can operate more effectively. They want fiscal reforms - and a better return on their tax dollars - now.

This is not an irrational sentiment on behalf of the public. As we've pointed out on this site many, many times, we're getting a tremendously low rate of return on our infrastructure dollar. We're stuck in an Old Economy infrastructure model, developed post-WW II, that has had diminishing returns for at least the last thirty years. The recent stimulus package and TIGER programs have simply been extensions of this mindset.

As another example of why people are ready to be done with this approach to infrastructure, I turn to a recently-announced TIGER II grant project here in the Central Minnesota town of Staples. The city, one of two award recipients in Minnesota, was given $7.65 million to construct an overpass. I'll excerpt from the news report:

A $7.65 million federal grant has been awarded to Staples to construct an overpass above Highway 10 and the BNSF Railway tracks on the west side of the city.

The $9,850,000 project will require no tax dollars from the city of Staples. Along with the federal grant, $1.2 million in other federal funding and $1 million in state funding has been committed to the project.

The overpass will end the north-south disconnect caused by Highway 10 and the BNSF Railway tracks. Currently, traffic was delayed three hours per day by slowing and switching trains, according to conservative estimates from Minnesota Department of Transpiration.

The project includes a dedicated 10-foot wide bike path and pedestrian lane. There will be no direct access to and from Highway 10 to the overpass. The project will extend from about 550 feet north of Warner Road on the north to Wisconsin Avenue on the south, a distance of about 1.2 miles.

Specifically, the overpass will connect Todd County Road 21 to the south to Wadena County Road 30 to the north. Mathews said currently driving from the north side to the south side of the city requires several turns onto various streets.

"It's a bit of a mouse maze to get from one side to the other," Mathews said. "It's been that way for years. The city has been working on this specific project for 10 years but trying to get a road over the tracks has been talked about for decades."

We are building an overpass to improve traffic flow in a small town of 3,000 people. The expenditure is $6,900 per Staples household. In the reaction / counter-reaction to the grant awards, Transportation for American actually singled out the Staples project as one that should be lauded.

The people in Staples, Minnesota stuck in traffic downtown for hours each day while an average of 52 long trains pass through town could probably vouch for the benefits and reduced congestion that will come from a brand new bridge and crossing.

Here's where I think infrastructure advocates lose the broad population. Yes, there is no question that the people of Staples will like this, but is that worth $9.85 million of everyone else's dollars? Can we really look at all of the priorities we have in this nation and pick this one?

Here are the criteria required for being selected for a grant:

In terms of selection criteria for TIGER II grants, submissions required: contributing to the long-term economic competitiveness of the nation; improving the condition of existing transportation facilities and systems; improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; improving the safety of U.S. transportation facilities and improving the quality of living and working environments of communities through increased transportation choices and connections.

Consider how the Staples project stacks up with the program's own criteria:

  • Contribute to the long-term economic competitiveness of the nation. Apparently somebody argued that we are going to be a more competitive country if people are able to get from one side of Staples (population 3,000) to the other a few seconds quicker? How is $10 million of additional debt to China and a long-term maintenance obligation that nobody can afford improving our competitiveness? What could they do with that money at the Staples school to make us more competitive? Staples is a nice town and I respect the proactive vision that many in their government have, but the town is not economically important to the region -- let alone the state or the country -- in any significant way.
  • Improve the condition of existing transportation facilities and systems. This is a fairly low and nonsensical standard since filling a pothole will "improve the condition" of an existing facility or system.
  • Improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This standard applied to the Staples project is a joke. We build them an overpass and people will theoretically get to where they are going more quickly and will thus spend less time driving. Of course, now that things are easier to get to, history has shown us that people will drive more, offsetting any benefit from the less-time-in-traffic argument. What this improvement does is to take a place that is marginally walkable and make it even less so. Sure, a trail is thrown in to make the street "complete" and fit the funding criteria. Why don't we just construct the trail? (Answer: Because then people would really think we were wasting money since very few will actually use the trail. Don't kid yourself - this is an auto enhancement project wrapped in a multi-modal veneer.) This project reinforces a drive-everywhere mentality.
  • Improving the safety of U.S. transportation facilities. In the Old Economy paradigm, anything that allows any car to move more freely from one place to another is deemed to "improve public safety." This is true even when studies have shown that it is not true. I've been stuck at trains in Staples and there is no question that, in an emergency, waiting for a train would present a major problem. (There is also no question that the three-hour wait sited in the story is a cumulative figure, surely counting lots of overnight work. I've driven through Staples many times and, while I've had to wait for trains at times, excessive waits are not a routine occurrence). Again though, if we walked into City Hall with a briefcase holding $9.8 million and asked them to spend it to improve public safety, there are a thousand things they would do before they would undertake this project. Train a paramedic on each block and put a defibrillator in every home and you'd more dramatically improve emergency response and be money ahead.
  • Improve the quality of living and working environments of communities through increased transportation choices and connections. I suppose one could argue that getting people from one side of town to the other more quickly improves their lives. It will certainly keep their cars happy. By reinforcing an auto-primacy mentality, it will not strengthen the neighborhoods of Staples or make them more livable. And even if it this the best we can do? As a nation, is an overpass of a low-volume railroad track and a low-volume highway a priority? If you gave me or anyone in Staples $9.8 million and said, "improve the quality of life for residents of Staples," this would be about the last project that anyone would choose.

As insiders and wonks in this debate over infrastructure, we can wring our hands over the lack of funding and hurl insults down from the towers at the masses who don't support our prescriptions. I find that counterproductive.

Instead, we need to understand that there is a logical reason why people won't get behind initiatives to fund essential infrastructure. If our system really considers the Staples overpass project a priority in an era when we are borrowing unfathomable amounts of money from overseas, systematically debasing our currency by printing even more, all the while squeezing funding from other parts of the public budget including unemployment and medical assistance, can we blame people for opposing more spending on infrastructure?

I think we'd be crazy as a people if we did not oppose this insanity.

I'm sure the shock of the city officials in Staples was more than genuine. They never anticipated getting the money because this project is, for the cost, a ridiculous expenditure of public dollars. If the city of Staples were asked to simply pay 10% of the cost -- just $985,000  for their "share" -- this project would not be happening. It is simply not a priority any rational group of people would spend their own money on. There literally is no return on this investment.

Ultimately, building Strong Towns cannot be done by relying solely on someone else's dime.


Note: This post raises a topic I have put off writing about, that being the insidious downside of the "Complete Streets" movement. Complete Streets is a concept I generally support, but one which has been misapplied by the establishment for reasons I consider quite nefarious. I feel compelled to write about this more, and so you will see that in an upcoming post.

Posts in this series: 

  • Part 1: Background on cost/benefit analyses
  • Part 2: Review of time savings benefit and distance benefit
  • Part 3: Review of safety, carbon reduction and O&M benefits
  • Part 4: Review of the project cost analysis 
  • Part 5: Finale

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