How should the federal government spend its proposed $1 trillion surge in infrastructure funding? It's a question we've been considering and posing to our colleagues for the last several months. Grist recently ran an article, which features several prominent leaders in the fields of transportation and planning offering their answers to this question. The list includes Lynn Richards, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism; Aaron Renn, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Yonah Freemark, founder of The Transport Politic; and our very own, Chuck Marohn, president and founder of Strong Towns.
Marohn answers the question of what to do with a surge in infrastructure spending by saying that the focus should be on fixing what we already have (see the above illustrations from Grist). He explains:
We’ve built an entire economy around large-scale infrastructure that ends up costing cities. So first you put in a road and a frontage road, and sewer and water, and what you get is a Walmart and a Costco and a housing development. The problem is that then we have a bunch of infrastructure to maintain, and that often costs more than the tax revenue that comes in from those new buildings. It’s not viable. We’ve been building infrastructure this way for two generations, and it’s slowly bankrupting our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
Instead of building new things, we need maintenance, mostly in older, poorer neighborhoods and mostly below ground. Many of our sewer and water systems are approaching 100 years old. When these core pipes fail, the problems cascade throughout the system.
The neighborhoods that have the highest tax return per acre today — and where a little bit of investment could have a big payoff — are the places with the highest poverty. So you look at those neighborhoods, and what do they need? They need just a little bit of love. Patch the sidewalks. Repave the streets. Fix the pipes. They also need new infrastructure. I’d put about 5 percent into what I would call neighborhood venture capital: Small, experimental projects: Put in some street trees. Put in a crosswalk. Connect to commercial centers...
Other leaders interviewed for the story suggest focusing the funding on housing, public transit, and more.