A pair of interesting articles showed up in the past week, highlighting a fundamental disconnect between various factions in the infrastructure wars. Ashley Halsey III of the Washington Post wrote an article bemoaning the lack of trust that much of the public has that their infrastructure dollars are being spent wisely, given the current state of disrepair of the nation’s roads, bridges, and transit systems. This article prompted a sharp rebuttal from Stephen Smith at Forbes, arguing that the public is entirely correct in this perception–that money is being wasted, the authorities in many areas are corrupt, and suggesting that the only solution that is being proposed by those who oversee our infrastructure is to pass the hat to taxpayers.
Unfortunately, both sides have many valid points. Our infrastructure is in miserable shape, for a myriad of reasons. And yes, corruption and waste abounds. The question, then, is what to do about it?
In Halsey’s article, she stated two things which are obvious, and also pointed to some research which seems to confirm these things: a) much of our infrastructure is functionally or structurally obsolete; and b) the public takes a highly cynical view towards politicians who point this out, broadly suspecting them of championing boondoggles and wasteful projects with heated rhetoric. She noted the huge funding gap between the need claimed by infrastructure leaders and the actual monies appropriated by Congress–a gap frequently cited as hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.. She also suggested a few ways to break this logjam, such as localizing infrastructure spending–noting that people are more receptive to building things in their own communities, rather than supporting grand visions that will have primary benefits elsewhere; and that voters are less receptive to threats of doomsday. The article, it could be argued, was a puff piece, but it didn’t contain, in my mind, anything truly outrageous or offensive.
Smith didn’t see it that way. He’s a writer I generally respect (although I disagree with him on much), but his article in Forbes was highly polemic, starting with the title: “Washington Post: Only Idiots Think Infrastructure Spending Is Wasteful, And Americans Are Idiots”. Reading the article, I fail to see where Halsey ever stated–or implied–any such thing. Smith also chastised her for failing to address the real issue of waste and inefficiency in capital projects. Unfortunately, he then went off on an anti-transit tangent, acting as though mass transit was the primary source of the problem, even though Halsey discussed shortcomings with pretty much all modes of transportation, both passenger and freight. Smith pointed out the infamous inefficiencies with New York City transit, where union-mandated overstaffing is a longstanding practice and recent projects such as the Second Avenue Subway come in at pricetags which make even the CRC look like it was bought at a garage sale, referring to Alon Levy‘s excellent work documenting the issues with transportation projects in the US, rail in particular. He then concluded with this:
In many ways, transit boosters in America resemble self-destructive drug addicts who had rough childhoods. Yes, the past was difficult, but that doesn’t make he bad decisions they’re still making any less problematic. Like a drug addict, American transit “experts” will never get anywhere unless they acknowledge that they have a problem in the first place. They’re like a heroin addict claiming that his live would be perfect, but only if stingy passers-by would just drop a few more dollars in his cup so he can buy another bag of dope.
Talking past each other
Unfortunately, such rhetoric doesn’t help–and while Smith does identify a major issue that the US has with quality of governance, particularly in infrastructure, this sort of broadside does little to shed light on issues. Many transportation experts–by which I mean planners and administrators, as well as engineers and activists–are well aware of the problem. Levy is an adamant transit supporter, of course, and he’s written extensively about this; I’ve written quite a bit here at PT. There’s a couple errors that Smith make, either of omission or commission.
- As noted above, he focuses entirely on one segment of the transportation sector–transit–while broadly ignoring the rest. Waste exists, and it exists pretty much everywhere; there’s just as much to be found in roadbuilding and aviation as there is in transit. The Big Dig in Boston. The Mercer Island tunnel. The CRC. The deep-bore tunnel. The Tappan Zee bridge replacement. The proposed tunnel under South Pasadena to complete the gap in I-710. Compared to these, the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” proposed for Alaska, which was mentioned by Halsey (this drew more ridicule from Smith) is peanuts.
- Even within public transit circles, the NYC subway system is a particularly notorious and inefficient case–New York is a highly-unionized city with abundant financial resources, which is well-known for a corrupt political culture and a highly dysfunctional relationship with the state government in Albany. Most cities in the US are not New York when it comes to waste and boondoggles.
- The solution space wasn’t explored much, if at all.
That said, there were a few things which Smith gets right:
- Reform is needed.
- Throwing money at the problem probably won’t help. It will eventually get things built, but it won’t improve the fundamental issues.
What is waste, anyway?
One major area of disconnect, which wasn’t explored by either author, is that terms such as “waste” mean different things to different people. Many (not all!) critics of transit, when they claim it is wasteful, often mean that they consider it undesirable at any price. Some critics are heavily invested in the automobile–owning one (or several) and living in auto-dependent places and having auto-dependent lifestyles–and believe that their preferred mode should be the one that receives investment. (This position is often justified with majoritarian arguments–most everybody drivers, only a few percent use transit). Others critics have reactionary attitudes towards transit and its users; and still others object to public subsidies of anything and consider transit to be an egregious offender. Smith is certainly not in the first two camps (being an urbanist); though he may be in the third (being a libertarian).
To Levy, however, waste means an entirely different thing. When he claims something is wasteful (in the US), it’s because other first-world economies (with similar labor costs, access to capital, and technical expertise) have proven track records building the same thing for far less money. Levy’s judgment of waste (in transit; he writes far less about roadbuilding, often considering that to be waste of the first kind) is not a judgment of the worth of the projects in question; but of how they are built. And in his writings, he goes into quite a bit of detail as to where the bodies are buried: inefficient or outmoded regulations and regulatory bodies (particularly the FRA); a lack of technical standards for things that ought to be standardized (in many countries, the same LRT vehicle will work unmodified in any city’s transit system; something which is decidedly not true in the US); a political culture more susceptible to capture by special interests (including both vendors and labor); less economies of scale (particularly for transit) than in other countries which build much more of it. To that, you might add the common use of transportation projects as economic stimulus vehicles (even during good economic times); and a greater difficulty assembling political coalitions in support of projects, thus necessitating more compromises to satisfy the various stakeholders.
Its the politics, stupid
Unfortunately, our political culture tends to produce one of two responses to the problem (and many others in public-sector governance): Throw money at the problem, or blow things up. Throwing money won’t solve the problem, and blowing things up solves the problem of waste, but does little to help with the more fundamental problem that our infrastructure is in decay. And while many voters may be correct in their suspicions that their money is often not wisely spent; there’s ample evidence that our infrastructure really is in deplorable shape–that not all such claims of dire emergency are examples of crying wolf from corrupt officials and rent-seeking special interests looking to loot the public till. However, some are–and separating wheat from chaff is often difficult.
Ultimately, the long-term solution to this is not an easy one; likely requiring structural reform in the nature of politics themselves–and thus something that politicians groomed under the current system are unlikely to deliver. However, as Levy shows, there are many places which do manage to build public projects with far less waste and fuss than we manage here in the US, places which are wealthy democracies to boot. No particular political ideology seems to have a monopoly on good governance–it can be found in places as diverse as the various European social democracies, as well as in quasi-libertarian societies such as Hong Kong. The first lesson for US leaders would be to study what works abroad and emulate it–not-invented-here syndrome is far too present in US polity. The second lesson is to understand how to reduce the influence of special interests (both right and left) on the political process. This is a battle which must be continuously fought, as special interests sooner or later tend to figure out how to game whatever system is put in place to restrain them. And probably a third lesson is to get transportation back out of the culture wars–in many places, busses and trains and freeways are regarded by the public as boring old utilities that are only politically remarkable when they are badly screwed up. Here, it seems our transportation infrastructure choices are among the great social issues of the day, with the decision to build rail or roads carrying tremendous amounts of freight in some great moral struggle. Other forms of public infrastructure, such as the power grid (which is publicly-owned in many places) or the sewers, don’t seem to generate anywhere near the same level of heated rhetoric.