As legislatures reconvened these past two months, there has been an active lobbying effort to boost transportation funding across the country. Countless newspapers, magazine, and television programs have dedicated time and space to covering the plea for more money, including a high-profile 60 Minutes segment that didn't include a single dissenting opinion.
The general consensus in the mainstream media has been that we need more funds in order to have a "21st Century" transportation system. If we don't, our bridges will collapse. That, and we won't be able to compete globally (what does this even mean?).
The opposition's opinion can't be summed up as easily. It goes something more like this: "It's complicated." The nuanced opinion challenges the underlying assumption as to what makes a good transportation investment. In other words, more money alone won't fix the system, and it might actually make it worse.
But, what does this look like? Well, it looks like this ...
Case Study: Perham, Minnesota
Perham is a quintessential small town in central Minnesota with fewer than 3,000 people. It's a sleepy community with a traditional Main Street and surrounded by lakes. If it's not the basis for fictional Lake Wobegon, it might as well be.
It recently received a "Transportation and Economic Development" grant to build a new $6.7 million interchange. The State pitches in $3.5 million and the local government covers the rest ($3.2 million). This project might make sense if the town didn't already have three interchanges leading to the same highway. As if a fourth interchange is just what this town needs to catapult its economy into the 21st century.
One of Many
What you're looking at is not unique.
In fact, I selected it because it is average. And, it's exactly the type of transportation infrastructure that our current system is looking to fund more of. But more importantly, it's not just this project - it's the countless hundreds like it.
You've heard the broken record that we can't afford to fix our crumbling roads? Well, projects like these are the reason why. It's an unneeded piece of infrastructure that diverts funds from maintaining what we have. A recent report by Smart Growth America outlined this systemic problem; States have dedicated 57% of their transportation revenues to new projects.
As Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog brilliantly opined in "More Money Won't Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don't Change How It's Spent";
But throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.
The reason our bridges are crumbling is because we've made the conscious decision not to repair them. Instead, we've chosen to build new things (more specifically, mostly roads). And now, we're tasking the same people who created the problem to help get us out of it?
The status quo will claim there isn't money to bring existing bridges up to today's standard, yet will simultaneously spend $25 million to save 7,000 vehicles a day 53 seconds on a commute (see here) and drop $680 million on an environmentally-compromising bridge to cornfields in Wisconsin (see here).
The Perham infrastructure expansion highlights another key issue: the expansion of a road that hasn't had significant increases in traffic volume in nearly 15 years. In 1998, it had approximately 5,000 vehicles a day. In 2012, that number was 5,300 [MnDOT]. For a comparison, the neighborhood street adjacent my house (with sidewalks, on-street parking and a tree-lined median) carries over 9,000 vehicles a day.
Vehicle traffic in Perham mirrors the population growth, which added around 400 residents between 2000 and 2010. This number is significant in the sense that it hasn't decreased - much like many other rural towns - but it isn't a booming community that would justify transportation infrastructure projects.
In fact, a report from the Center for American Progress found that 50% of roads likely aren't carrying enough traffic to cover their maintenance expenses (see also Streetsblog). I have a good feeling that Perham is one of these places. Of course, this isn't to say we should have disinvestment in communities (we shouldn't), but we need to acknowledge that if we're going to support these places, more highway infrastructure is not the way to do it.
More money for transportation won't fix the system, and it won't help places like Perham. Places like Perham need something else. So, why do we do it? Because it worked in the past? We don't know what else to do? I think it's the latter.