During the 2016 election season, we set out to talk to thoughtful, influential people about a potential surge in infrastructure spending that seems sure to happen once Congress is in session and the new president is sworn in. We wanted to get ideas on the table, to broaden the national conversation beyond the binary more-or-less money paradigm our leaders would like us to be obsessing about.
It is clear that there is a massive funding gap between the amount of revenue currently projected for infrastructure maintenance and the cost of maintaining all that we have built. When we consider the new things we would like to build and the enhancements to existing systems we would like to make, that gap expands to unimaginable levels. There are no serious proposals to eliminate this gap, but there is a lot of momentum to simply pour as much money as possible into the breach.
Is reform needed before more money is spent? Does the urgency of our economy prompt us to spend first, reform as we go? Can new spending drive reform or will it sideline reform? Is reform even needed?
Here's a bit of what we heard.
The former transportation secretary, now a lobbyist for additional infrastructure spending, advocates an all-of-the-above approach. His concept of a big pot of money is the antithesis of Strong Towns thinking, but -- barring a shift in sentiment -- his ideas seem poised to carry the day in Washington DC this spring.
The former mayor of Seattle has long been a friend of the Strong Towns movement. When mayor, his inclination was to support small, incremental improvements that focused on quality of life. This was controversial -- he lost a reelection bid after a contentious vote on a major transportation project -- but, in hindsight, McGinn's vision is truly where the city of Seattle needs to go, especially with the SDOT director stating the city "can't handle any more cars."
If there is to be a big pot of money, it needs to be distributed differently than infrastructure money is being spent today.
Consistent with the brilliant way Professor Fisher sees the world, much of our conversation with him was nuanced, yet he clearly belongs in the tribe of those that want some significant reform before -- or at least during -- any plan to surge spending on infrastructure.
Perhaps the best quote from the interview:
"If communities really looked at what they could afford and confronted that right at the beginning, I think we would find a very different kind of infrastructure that we’d be putting in place going forward."
Fisher points out that we can spend less and have better outcomes, but will we have the incentives to make those changes if there is simply a big pot of money made available?
One of the most difficult things for advocates like Kate Kraft, executive director of America Walks, is finding the right ally to work with. Federal spending programs overwhelmingly fund projects that make walking and biking more difficult. Yet, those same federal systems are often the only place to fund biking and walking infrastructure at all. While local governments have all the financial incentives to make low risk, high returning biking and walking investments, they often have the worst instincts in that regard and find it difficult to shift money from auto-based infrastructure.
Do you welcome a big pot of federal money or push for a more localized approach? There's no easy answer.
Russ Roberts is an economist who we tapped to walk us through the case for and against the big-pot-of-money approach. Admittedly skeptical, he helped us understand why some economists consider infrastructure spending a "free lunch" but why he personally believes there is no such thing:
"The idea that something is free, that we can do something with no consequences, is always appealing to the people who want to spend the money or the beneficiaries of it. It seems very unlikely to me, that we’ve discovered a magical way to say, double the size of our economy and that’s simply by spending money."
Question: What do you think of the idea of a big pot of federal money for infrastructure?
(Top photo compliments of Aaron Naparstek.)