If there's anything resembling a cultural consensus around a political issue in 2019 America, it's that Infrastructure is An Important Thing. There is bipartisan support in Congress and in most state legislatures for the idea that we need to invest more money in infrastructure—even if wrangling over the details inevitably reveals divisions about where and how.
It's good to be wary of anything that attracts uncritical bipartisan support. If an idea is massively popular and uncontroversial, it usually means the terms of the public discourse about it are stiflingly limited, and you would be well served look for what is not being said, by leaders on either side of the aisle.
As we have argued at Strong Towns for years, the blanket call for "more infrastructure spending" is dangerous and misguided. America's local and state governments are drowning in unfunded maintenance liabilities. In most places, we can't afford to maintain what we've already built. Much of this maintenance is important, and the more billions of dollars we throw at new projects—without any serious scrutiny as to whether they will deliver a return on investment—the deeper the financial hole we will find ourselves in.
The term "infrastructure" refers to an enormously broad category of projects and expenditures, within which there are both prudent investments and disastrous boondoggles to be had. Yet the framing of much of the national debate condenses "infrastructure" to a single, categorical, assumed societal good. And we’ll let you in on a little secret, one you may have already guessed: this lack of clarity is a feature, not a bug, for the lobbying organizations behind the annual Infrastructure Week.
Beginning today and running from May 13 through 20, Infrastructure Week is a coordinated campaign of advocacy and events supporting increased infrastructure spending by governments at every level. It's sponsored by a who's who of organizations that would stand to benefit from more money to build things, almost regardless of what it is we build. This collection of organizations is what we have long dubbed America's "Infrastructure Cult." A search of tweets employing the Infrastructure Week 2019 hashtag, #BuildForTomorrow, yields (along with a lot of pictures of shiny new freeway interchanges) a sense of who the players are. Sponsors and strong proponents include:
ASCE, the American Society of Civil Engineers
The AFL-CIO (whose affiliated unions represent many construction workers)
Asphalt industry lobbying organizations
Trucking industry lobbying organizations
Many state Departments of Transportation
If you're following the news about Infrastructure Week, you're going to come across a lot of claims—and big dollar amounts—that deserve some unpacking. Here's a collection of some of our classic content about infrastructure needs in America. Consider this a primer to help you be a skeptical news consumer and separate rhetoric from reality.
1. Basic maintenance needs are a ticking time bomb.
From Charles Marohn’s May 2018 essay, “The More We Build, the Poorer We Get”:
The infrastructure investments we’ve made have not created enough wealth and prosperity to sustain them. From an accounting standpoint, these were mostly negative-returning investments. Governments — which, unlike private-sector actors, cannot just walk away from this stuff after a life cycle — just made some really bad investments. Decades after decades worth.
This will come as a surprise to many people conditioned to believe that building new roads, installing new pipe and making other capital investments will stimulate the economy, create growth and provide jobs. Don't get me wrong: the spending it takes to get those projects off the ground may do all of that. But it also creates a future obligation for the government to maintain a road, a pipe or a building that people now depend on. Do the math; in our current development pattern, it never adds up.
2. Is public infrastructure an asset or a liability?
From Charles Marohn’s August 2014 essay, “Is a Street an Asset?”
Roads, streets, sewer and water systems and other infrastructure are generally considered to be assets. When cities account for their assets and liabilities in their audits, infrastructure is counted in the former and debt in the latter. When we invest in infrastructure we are building an asset for the community. Always the positive side of the ledger.
Is a street really an asset, though?
The problem is, the city doesn't get to simply walk away from that asset. They have to fix the road. In accounting terms, they have accrued a liability, the same as a debt. While the city will not experience a hard default for reneging on this obligation, they certainly experience a soft default. Experience enough soft defaults and the city's true asset -- its tax base -- will be negatively impacted.
3. What is the Infrastructure Cult and why is Strong Towns critical of it?
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is unlike many professional organizations, in that it engages in routine political advocacy. ASCE lobbies for things that will produce more money for more projects for more engineers.
Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn argues strongly that this “more is better” mindset is a deeply harmful dogma at a time when most American cities and towns suffer a financial solvency crisis. For this, he has come under intense criticism from some ASCE members, including one who attempted to intimidate him by lodging an (unsuccessful) complaint against his professional engineering license.
Find out more in Charles Marohn’s 2015 podcast, “Can You Be an Engineer and Speak Out for Reform?”
4. Why does new highway spending consistently fail to deliver on its promises?
From Joe Cortright’s 2017 essay, “What Dallas, Houston, Louisville & Rochester Can Teach Us About Widening Freeways: Don’t!”
America’s largest freeway is Houston’s 23-lane Katy Freeway. Its been widened many times, always, ostensibly with the idea of eliminating congestion. But no matter how wide it gets, added capacity just induces further flung development and more peak hour driving, with the result that the freeway is even slower today than it was when it was widened just a few years ago. Texas spent $2.3 billion to widen the road, but just three years after in opened, the morning commute has increased by 25 minutes (or 30 percent) and the afternoon commute has increased by 23 minutes (or 55 percent). It’s just one of many examples of how expanding freeway capacity to fight congestion is simply futile.
5. How do you unpack the propaganda used to justify highway megaprojects?
The proponents of massive new projects always come armed with elaborate economic-impact studies that purport to show a massively positive return on investment—couched in just enough jargon, tables and charts to intimidate a layperson who might be skeptical. We did a thorough deconstruction of such a project in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2017, to illustrate just how the highway lobby games the numbers to support a predetermined conclusion.
From Charles Marohn’s 2017 series, “The Economics of the I-49 Connector in Shreveport”
We’re sharing a three-part series that explains the bogus nature of a study called Economic Impacts of the I-49 Completion, Inner City Connector which was prepared to show the enormous, positive economic impact the project is allegedly going to have. It's pure propaganda. When professionals write propaganda, it has a degrading effect on our culture and diminishes all who are supposed to have the public's trust. This kind of practice — which is ubiquitous with the scale of project being done — needs to end.
6. But don't we have dire maintenance needs?
Cities like Flint, Michigan, notorious for its lead-tainted water supply, certainly do. And there are likely many more Flints in the making. Does rejecting the “build, baby, build” rhetoric of the Infrastructure Cult mean we also reject allocating the resources needed to deal with problems like Flint’s?
Not at all. But we can reevaluate our assumptions about how we deal with such issues. And when we do, we might even find we can better afford to do the things that really matter for our health and well-being.
From Charles Marohn’s 2016 essay, “Reinventing Poor Cities at Scale”
The values of post-war American development are embedded in our current approach -- efficiency over resiliency, large up front expense over ongoing maintenance expense, comprehensive over incremental, one-size-fits-all over tactical -- and they keep us from seeing the opportunities that sit right in front of us. Opportunities that reflect present day values.
7. What is the Strong Towns alternative at the federal level?
From Charles Marohn’s 2017 essay, “A Letter to POTUS on Infrastructure”
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.
Finally, we 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.