Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Physical infrastructure Updated: June 11, 2013 - 12:04 PM

We have a political situation in the United States where Democrats are too eager to build anything if it creates a job and the Republicans are too willing to call a project a boondoggle without first investigating its merit. It is this standstill that Josh Barro argues in How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure:

Republicans aren’t interested in coming up with smarter, more efficient ways to build rail infrastructure. So;Democrats fear that if they don’t defend wasteful, ill-conceived rail projects, they won’t get any at all. 

Barro uses the example of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killing a proposed $10 billion railway tunnel into New York City;

The project was overly expensive and the terminal, in particular, was unnecessary — New York Penn Station, which currently receives trains from New Jersey, has plenty of platforms, they’re just used inefficiently today. We could much more cheaply build a new tunnel to serve the existing station.

It’s hard not to apply a local context. The Southwest Corridor light rail alignment comes to mind. The preferred local alternative is one of compromise: taking federal money while it’s still available, getting it done quickly, and bypassing Uptown in the process.

It leads us to a political question of cost-effectiveness.

This requirement puts elected officials in a quandary: should they work to build the most effective transit network possible, or should they limit their ambitions for fear that the federal government will rule out any funding at all? – The Transportation Politic

The densest, most urban neighborhoods of Minneapolis will be passed up partly because we want to get it done quickly, and our decision-makers will argue that something is better than nothing. The result: we’ll build a $750 million project through the least dense neighborhoods of Minneapolis where we’re likely to see the least ridership and the least associated spillover development (there are excellent maps on Net Density outlining population densityaccess to employment and access to automobiles along both routes).

There is certainly merit to building transit in a cost-effective manner, but it shouldn’t necessarily be done at the cost of creating an efficient system that connects meaningful places.

In order to receive money from Washington, Metro will have to show that the proposed route meets national cost-effectiveness guidelines, which are stringent enough to sieve out a large percentage of proposed new transit lines. ­–Transportation Politic

Minneapolis is getting the lesser of two routes due to a lack of political consensus on what makes good infrastructure.  It’s this orderly, but dumb, system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide local officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

With local officials wanting the Federal government to pick-up a majority of the tab on the Southwest Corridor, they are going to play ball with the cost-effectiveness ratio. Getting all the money locally, or through the State Government, would be an impossible political task regardless of the merit. Can you imagine asking the Republican Party of Minnesota to pay for the entirety of a light rail line? In fact, you’d have trouble selling the idea to most Democrats.

Why must we have a cost-effectiveness equation? Is it to select the best projects? No, it’s merely to prove that we’re doing infrastructure in a supposedly financially responsible manner, primarily concerning initial capital costs.

Yet, this equation won’t save us money in the long run because it leads to, above all, cutting corners. We should be cutting the corners that need to be cut, but cutting corners for the sake of cutting corners with no regard for what we’re cutting is to say that all infrastructure projects are created equal. They aren’t and they shouldn’t be viewed as such.

We do need to build infrastructure other than big highways, new bridges and shiny sports stadiums. However, not all rail projects are necessarily a good investment (e.g.: Tampa Bay to Orlando High Speed Train). Democrats should be mindful of this. But, Republicans need to stop saying that everything is a boondoggle. The more they do this, the more they lose credibility and appear out-of-touch.

Republican needs to get off the obsession with big roads and highway spending (in all fairness, Democrats are proponents of large road-related infrastructure projects too). Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party representative of Minnesota, constantly laments wasteful government spending … expect when it concerns widening I-94 to St. Cloud or spending $750 million to connect exurban Hudson. It is this, I believe, why Barro writes;

But Republicans aren’t interested in building better rail projects — they just don’t want to build them at all. Christie hasn’t made a priority of building a smarter, cheaper Hudson tunnel to replace ARC; instead, he’s widening the New Jersey Turnpike.

Bachmann would be doing her district a much bigger favor if she advocated for a transit line (rail or BRT) that connected downtown Stillwater to St. Paul or to extend the Northstar Line to St. Cloud. Both of these projects could be done for nearly the same cost as the projects she is advocating, but would have a bigger, more meaningful outcome. These could be done in a reasonable and arguably conservative way.

Barro has some more suggestions for Republicans;

Republicans ought to own the issue of American uncompetitiveness on infrastructure costs. They should seize on a report out today from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, about how America’s regulations on rolling stock prevent us from using the same kinds of train cars that European countries do. Our trains have to be custom-designed and heavy, which makes them more expensive, less efficient and less reliable. This is dumb and we should fix it.

Word.

[Note: the requirements of cost-effectiveness have been loosened since 2010, but the Southwest Transit route remains the same].

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