During the presidential transition that took place at the beginning of this year, I was asked to provide my thoughts on how a Trump administration should prioritize what was anticipated to be up to a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. It was an honor — and a testament to how large the Strong Towns movement has grown — to be asked to weigh in with some notes. I knew the odds of our foundational ideas being given serious weight was remote since, if asked what the federal government should do on infrastructure spending, I would have argued: the less the better. So, in the spirit of pragmatism, I tried a different approach.
The question we at Strong Towns asked ourselves was this: If America's going to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, how could that be done in the least damaging way? Using Strong Towns' framing, how could we limit the downside damage of a surge in infrastructure spending in 2017 and increase the likelihood that there would be some long term upside to these investments?
While he was roundly criticized for making the comment at the time, I was and remain sympathetic to Donald Rumsfield's observation during the war with Iraq that you go to war with the military you have, not the one you wished you had. At its core, it's an acknowledgement that, particularly in major matters, we will never have the ideal set of conditions for moving ahead. Anyone who has successfully managed a complex system for any length of time grasps this intuitively, making reaction to Rumsfield's comments a litmus test of sorts for a certain type of competency. I referenced it in my comments below as a way to signal that we grasp this limitation.
I ultimately framed my remarks as an open letter because it helped me think more like a politician and less like a policy advocate, and because I thought it would be helpful for the communities that received this money to think about things in this way. The four-point framing, while not universal, is simple to understand and, if followed, would generally produce better results than whatever is ultimately done.
Speaking of which, despite seemingly broad consensus among elected officials, policy advisers and pundits that the smartest course of action for the United States is to spend a colossal sum of federal money on infrastructure, we haven't done it. Perhaps it will happen in 2018, but perhaps not. I'm not going to take the credit for the hesitation, but every day this is put off, we build more of a groundswell of opposition to our current infrastructure approach. If serious reform is not an option, here's to another year of inaction. - Chuck Marohn
Dear Mr. President,
I am writing you on behalf of our Board of Directors and our membership regarding a potential surge in federal infrastructure spending. At Strong Towns, we have developed a unique understanding that allows us to speak with a level of clarity on this issue. Our supporters have no financial interest in whether or not more federal money is spent on infrastructure; our mission is to advocate for ways those investments can make our cities stronger.
To borrow a real estate term, America's infrastructure is a non-performing asset. For nearly every American city, the ongoing cost to service, maintain and replace it exceeds not only the available cash flow but the actual wealth that it creates.
For example, we did a deep financial study of the city of Lafayette, Louisiana. We found that the city's public infrastructure — roads, streets, sewer, water, drainage — has a replacement cost of $32 billion. In comparison, the total tax base of Lafayette is just $16 billion. Imagine building a $250,000 home and needing an additional $500,000 in infrastructure to support it. This seems incredible. But not only is it common, it is the default for cities across America.
This imbalance is caused by incentives we embed in our current approach. When the federal government pays for a new interchange or the extension of utilities, local governments gladly accept that investment. The city, while spending little to no money of their own, has an immediate cash benefit from the jobs, permit fees and added tax base. The only thing the local government must do is promise to maintain the new infrastructure, a bill that won't come due for decades.
Here's the catch: When we look at that bill, our cities almost always can't pay it. Cities never run a return-on-investment analysis that includes replacement costs. Cities never even compute the tax base needed to financially sustain the investment. There's no incentive to do it and every reason not to.
In psychological terms, this is called temporal discounting. The people running local governments, as well as the residents they serve, have the natural human tendency to highly value free money today and deeply discount, if not altogether dismiss, the financial burden these projects will create in the future. We've been building infrastructure this way for two generations. We have created a lot of short term growth, but we've also created trillions of dollars of non-performing assets — infrastructure investments that are slowly bankrupting our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
The fundamental insolvency of our infrastructure investments is the root cause of the pension crisis and the explosion in municipal debt. It is the real reason why our infrastructure is not being maintained. New growth is easy and comes with all kinds of cash incentives. Maintenance is difficult and has little upside. Cities with huge maintenance backlogs still prioritize system expansion because they are chasing the short-term cash benefits of new growth, even at the expense of their future solvency.
What do we do today? To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, we're going to make investments in infrastructure with the systems we have, not the ones we wish we had. Here's what we must do immediately:
- Prioritize maintenance over new capacity. With so many non-performing assets, it's irresponsible to build additional capacity. Project proposers will try to add additional capacity with their maintenance projects. If it is truly warranted, it can and should be funded locally. Cities need to discover ways to turn such investments into projects with positive return on investment (ROI), a process the federal government can only impede.
- Prioritize small projects over large. Small projects not only spread the wealth, they have much greater potential for positive returns with far lower risk. Large projects exceed their budgets more often and with greater severity (in dollars and percentage) than smaller projects. A thousand projects of a million dollars or less have far more financial upside than a single billion-dollar project ever will. It's administratively easier to do fewer, big projects, but that is a bureaucratic temptation we need to overcome.
- Spend more money below ground than above. Many of our sewer and water systems are approaching 100 years old. When these core pipes fail, the problems cascade throughout the system. Technology may soon dramatically change how we use our roads and streets, making investments in expansion there obsolete, but water and sewer will still flow through pipes as it has for thousands of years. We should spend at least $5 below ground for every $1 we spend above.
- Prioritize neighborhoods that are more than 75 years old. At Strong Towns, we've modeled hundreds of cities across the country and in every one, the neighborhoods with the highest investment potential are the ones that existed before World War II. These are established places where small investments have a huge impact. Most investments in neighborhoods built after World War II are simply bailouts, pouring good money after bad.
In short, small maintenance projects focusing on below ground infrastructure in old, established neighborhoods have the greatest potential for positive returns. These projects will put people to work, create jobs and fix failing infrastructure as well as — if not better than — the large expansion projects currently in the shovel-ready backlog. These are also the kind of projects that get private capital off the sidelines and back to work building wealth in our communities.
In addition, while we understand that a surge in infrastructure spending is not going to wait for systematic reform, there are some modest yet transformative reforms we can make as part of this process:
- Require states and municipalities receiving funds to do accrual accounting. Governments must have a real accounting of their long-term liabilities, including infrastructure, on their balance sheet. The days of fake financial statements that ignore government's long term promises need to end.
- Require municipalities to account for infrastructure as an accruing liability instead of a depreciating asset. Cities have an obligation to maintain infrastructure. It's improper to pretend infrastructure is an asset that loses value as it ages. Like pensions, infrastructure is an intergenerational promise that is properly accounted for as a liability.
- Require project applicants to calculate financial return on investment. Many federal programs currently require an ROI analysis, but the emphasis is on non-monetary, social returns. These are fine as secondary criteria, but infrastructure projects need to make financial sense or they will fail. Municipalities must know what kind of revenue stream is needed to maintain an infrastructure investment over multiple life cycles.
Finally, we at Strong Towns believe you should consider the channels through which federal funds are distributed. There is strong evidence to suggest that working directly with mayors to fund local projects creates the greatest potential for innovation as well as the highest fiscal returns. Money given directly to state transportation departments should have a heavy emphasis on maintenance. We would avoid funding counties and other regional entities which, we have found, tend to build the lowest-returning of all infrastructure projects.
Thank you for your consideration. If we can be of assistance to you or your team in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP
Professional Engineer, Certified Planner
Founder and President of Strong Towns