The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure [Revisited]

We have a political situation in the United States where Democrats are too eager to build anything if it creates a job and the Republicans are too willing to call a project a boondoggle without first investigating its merit. It is this standstill that Josh Barro argues in How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure:

Republicans aren’t interested in coming up with smarter, more efficient ways to build rail infrastructure. So; Democrats fear that if they don’t defend wasteful, ill-conceived rail projects, they won’t get any at all. 

Barro uses the example of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killing a $10 billion railway tunnel into New York City;

The project was overly expensive and the terminal, in particular, was unnecessary — New York Penn Station, which currently receives trains from New Jersey, has plenty of platforms, they’re just used inefficiently today. We could much more cheaply build a new tunnel to serve the existing station.

Yes, the conservative / liberal infrastructure divide is a generalization. The often stated assumptions are generally true, but don’t always account for a Republican Ray LaHood championing high speed rail or Minnesota’s Democrat Senator Al Franken cutting ribbons at an expensively bridge project that bypasses historic, landmark environmental protection laws.

It’s hard not to apply a local context. The Southwest Corridor in Minneapolis has a preferred local alternative that is one of compromise: taking federal money while it’s still available, getting it done quickly, and bypassing the densest, most urban neighborhoods of Minneapolis in the process.

It leads us to a political question of cost-effectiveness.

This requirement puts elected officials in a quandary: should they work to build the most effective transit network possible, or should they limit their ambitions for fear that the federal government will rule out any funding at all? – The Transportation Politic

The existing traditional transit-oriented neighborhood which will generate high, immediate ridership will be passed up partly because we want to get it done quickly, and our decision-makers will argue that something is better than nothing. The result: we’ll build a $750 million project through the least dense neighborhoods where we’re likely to see the least ridership and the least associated spillover development.

There is certainly merit to building transit in a cost-effective manner, but it shouldn’t necessarily be done at the cost of creating an efficient system that connects meaningful places.

In order to receive money from Washington, Metro will have to show that the proposed route meets national cost-effectiveness guidelines, which are stringent enough to sieve out a large percentage of proposed new transit lines. ­–Transportation Politic

Originally, such cost-effectiveness came as a way remove politics from the end-result. Streets.MN writer, Mike Hicks, has an excellent summary of the situation;

Ever since road works agencies first began appearing, it was clear that politics can lead to bad decisions, so I think there’s always been a desire for engineers to develop objective measures to try and drive most processes internally, without political overhead, and to help deflect the political pressure that does creep in.

Another subset of this phenomenon is the inflated merit of cost-benefit analysis.

Now, it appears that Minneapolis is getting the lesser of two routes due to a lack of general consensus on what makes good infrastructure. It’s the orderly, but dumb, system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide local officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

Why must we have a cost-effectiveness equation? Is it to select the best projects? No, it’s merely to prove that we’re doing infrastructure in a supposedly financially responsible manner, primarily concerning initial capital costs.

This equation won’t save us money in the long run because it leads to, above all, cutting corners. We should be cutting the corners that need to be cut, but cutting corners for the sake of cutting corners with no regard for what we’re cutting is to say that all infrastructure projects are created equal. They aren’t and they shouldn’t be viewed as such.

We do need to build infrastructure other than big highways, new bridges and extravagant sports stadiums. However, not all rail projects are necessarily a good investment (e.g.: Tampa Bay to Orlando High Speed Train). Democrats should be mindful of this. But, Republicans need to stop saying that everything is a boondoggle. The more they do this, the more they lose credibility and appear out-of-touch.

Republican needs to get off the obsession with big roads and highway spending (in all fairness, Democrats are proponents of large road-related infrastructure projects too). Michelle Bachmann, the former Tea Party representative of Minnesota, constantly laments wasteful government spending … except when it concerns widening I-94 to St. Cloud or spending $750 million to connect exurban Hudson. It is this, I believe, why Barro writes;

But Republicans aren’t interested in building better rail projects — they just don’t want to build them at all. Christie hasn’t made a priority of building a smarter, cheaper Hudson tunnel to replace ARC; instead, he’s widening the New Jersey Turnpike. ...

Republicans ought to own the issue of American uncompetitiveness on infrastructure costs. They should seize on a report out today from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, about how America’s regulations on rolling stock prevent us from using the same kinds of train cars that European countries do. Our trains have to be custom-designed and heavy, which makes them more expensive, less efficient and less reliable. This is dumb and we should fix it.

How do we bridge this wide political divide?

On a macro-scale, it starts with Democrats being open to viewing infrastructure as an investment in infrastructure; and not in a jobs investment. Republicans need to be more critical of the process itself, and not necessarily the end result or the sticker shock of a high-price tag.

Part of the problem is that we have made these political compromises in the ‘get it done’ system that has led to some poor performing transit lines and roadway projects. Now, it’s easy for Republicans to criticize because it is inefficient, doesn’t connect much and costs a lot of money – yet at the same time, they do not help provide the framework to let is prosper because each project is continuously being bleed it to death using 1,000 little cuts.

Democrats and Republicans alike need to stop worrying about transportation inducing new development and growth, and instead view it as a way to connect people and existing places. New development will spur around these places, but it shouldn’t be the primary goal of transportation. And, it is better to have a place that will incrementally grow up slowly over time than merely something that develops overnight and provide a windfall of quick redevelopment money.