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 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 Joe 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.
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?”
Where Card has a crucial insight 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 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.