Strong Towns Podcast Greatest Hits #1: Why Neither Left Nor Right Speaks Coherently About Infrastructure

If you’re a devoted Strong Towns Podcast listener (and if not, why not?), we’ve got two pieces of good news and one piece of bad news for you today.

The bad news: Our founder, president, and podcast host Chuck Marohn is taking a hiatus from recording new episodes of the Strong Towns Podcast. We won’t have any brand new episodes for you for a couple months or more, though we’ll be back in full swing sometime this spring, most likely early April.

The good news: The reason for this is to allow Chuck the time to work on a major project that has been underway for a few months now. We’re not quite ready to talk about this project publicly. But rest assured you’ll hear about it when we are, and that our members will be among the first to know. We think you’ll be very excited by what’s in store for the Strong Towns movement in 2019.

The other good news: With hundreds of Strong Towns Podcast episodes to date, there’s a treasure trove of material that you probably haven’t heard, and so we’ll be curating a Strong Towns Podcast “Greatest Hits” series for you over the next couple months.

So never fear: there will still be a Strong Towns podcast every Monday afternoon. But instead of a brand new conversation, it’ll be one of our favorites from our archive. We’re going to place an emphasis on pieces recorded prior to the past 12 months, so they’ll be new and fresh to the majority of our audience, and maybe a pleasant rediscovery for our longtime listeners.

Thank you for listening, and keep doing what you can to build strong towns. –Strong Towns staff.

Greatest Hits #1: America Answers (February 12, 2015)

In fall 2014, Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn participated in the America Answers forum put on by the Washington Post, sharing a stage with, among others, then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

In this reflection recorded after the fact, Chuck analyzes clips of three forum participants’ remarks on the subject of infrastructure spending: Andrew Card, who served as White House Chief of Staff under George W. Bush and Transportation Secretary under George H.W. Bush; Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011; and Vice President Biden. Their respective framings of America’s infrastructure crisis inspire Chuck to ponder a disappointing reality of recent American politics: neither the political left nor the right seems to talk about infrastructure coherently.

Chuck’s diagnosis is more specific, and might upset some of the partisans in the crowd. Thinkers on the right, he says in this 2015 recording, tend to offer all the right solutions to all the wrong problems. Those on the left, on the other hand, do a better job of identifying the truly pressing problems facing society, but then offer counterproductive solutions.

Whether you agree or disagree with this assertion, or think it still holds true in 2019, there’s a lot to dig into in this excellent podcast episode.

Vice President Biden frames infrastructure in context of the broader problem of income inequality. And he’s right, says Chuck. Our auto-centric transportation system, which we can’t afford to maintain, creates an enormous cost for individuals and households. “It’s a huge ante that you have to spend to be in the game”—to have access to the jobs and opportunity that cities provide. Unless, of course, you can spend a fortune for a home in a desirably-located location.

What we’re trying to do at Strong Towns is push back against this approach of throwing our weight and our might at these problems over and over again, like some kind of punch-drunk sailor.

Where Biden and Rendell go wrong is in advocating, almost indiscriminately, for throwing money at infrastructure problems without reforming the systems by which we prioritize our investments. “It all comes back to the oldest story of this country: build, build, build, build,” says Biden. That’s how you grow a middle class. That’s how you produce prosperity. Unless, of course, the stuff you’re building is actually saddling you with future obligations you can’t hope to repay.

Andrew Card goes wrong in his understanding of what kind of investments are productive, says Chuck. “Texas has an advantage” over the Northeast in solving infrastructure problems, Card claims, because “they have a lot of land” on which to build cheaply. But this is better understood not as an advantage but as the biggest obstacle facing a place like Texas: “How do we connect all these far-flung places?” The congestion of the Northeast corridor is not a dire problem, but rather a sign of success: of a huge amount of productive activity taking place in a relatively small area.

Where Card has a crucial insight, however, is where it comes to solutions to our infrastructure woes: they must involve feedback mechanisms. When the users of infrastructure pay for its maintenance, we end up building things that make sense in the long run. When those who pay and make funding decisions don’t have skin in the game, we end up with things like the TIGER grant program, which has a history of funding bizarre, unnecessary, crazy projects. Let’s talk about user finance, says Card. Instead of the troubled gas tax, how about taxing vehicle miles traveled, or the weight of vehicles (corresponding to wear and tear on roads)? How about incentives for trucks to drive at night to relieve daytime congestion? How do we get more real value out of the system we have?

“What we’re trying to do at Strong Towns,” says Chuck, “is push back against this approach of throwing our weight and our might at these problems over and over again, like some kind of punch-drunk sailor.” To have a more rational conversation on American infrastructure, we desperately need to grapple with the difference between mere spending and truly productive investment.