Ask Strong Towns Question #13

We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, Richard from St. Louis asks:

“The $700M Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge which carries I70 over the Mississippi River at St. Louis has met its traffic projects of 40k/day within a year of opening and is thus a great success. How would you evaluate its performance?”

There are few infrastructure investments more consequential, yet less understood, than a bridge.

I just finished The Last 100 Days by John Toland, a book examining the final days of war in the European theater during World War II. Bridges play a substantial role in the drama. Every river is a natural defensive barrier that needed to be crossed. The fewer the crossings, the more vigorously each could be defended by the Germans. As the Allies established more and more crossing of each river, their advance became impossible to stop.

In the post war approach to growth and economic development, we've tended to look at bridges in the same way. The more the better. Strategically, every new crossing we create opens up more land to be exploited for development. Like armies pouring over the Rhine, our goal was (and largely still is) to facilitate the fast outward expansion of cities into new area. Bridges are essential to this task.

Of course, we don't look at bridges the same way at Strong Towns. With few exceptions, bridges are part of a road system, meaning they are part of connecting two productive places. This differs from the street system which is a platform for building a productive place. Bridges connect.

This means that the success of a bridge can only be judged based on how it impacts the productivity of the places it connects. It's not about moving people, per se, but improving connections between places so those places experience more growth, development and success. We can move people back and forth all day and, if our cities and the people within them are not becoming wealthier, then what's the point? 

...nobody knows whether or not this is a good investment.

Of course, we only measure traffic -- not wealth, productivity or return-on-investment -- so nobody knows whether or not this is a good investment.

Knowing only that a bridge costs $700 million and that it is at capacity within a year of opening, I would have to call the project a missed opportunity, at best. I'm fairly confident there is no price mechanism at play -- no toll being collected to cross the bridge -- so we really don't discern the true demand. We also don't have any mechanism to separate the truly important trips, the ones that are going to drive productive investments in the places being connected, from the unimportant, thus any benefit from the connection is being drowned out by the sheer volume of trips. 

Finally, Missouri is in desperation mode when it comes to funding transportation. MoDOT is now saying that there are "tough choices ahead" due to the fact that the state has built more lane miles and bridges than it has tax base to pay for. I suggest that MoDOT would be in a stronger financial position if it didn't measure success in terms of traffic flow -- just spread things out and it's a self-reinforcing feedback loop, after all -- but instead worked to strengthen the financial productivity of the state's cities and, in doing so, build the wealth of those that live there.