In an era of inflated political passions, where is the pragmatic center when it comes to comparatively dull issues like infrastructure? That was a key question up for discussion last week at an event where I had the pleasure of speaking as a panelist. Hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and supported generously by Bernard L. Schwartz, the event focused on job creation and infrastructure policy, featuring speakers such as Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Chris Coons and Mark Warner, and a host of other policy leaders and experts.
The central theme of the event was the critical need for increased public and private investment in infrastructure, including not just traditional physical infrastructure, but also new digital-physical hybrid infrastructure, such as smart highways and bridges. In addition, the event sought to identify effective policies that might have a reasonable chance of bipartisan support.
One issue that repeatedly came up was how it can be possible, given the major infrastructure challenges facing America, that there is not more support for infrastructure funding. Some argued it is time to make infrastructure “sexy.” Others said we need to make it appealing to millennials. But I have a different view: Infrastructure funding doesn’t get the support it needs because for more than a decade both sides of the political spectrum have told us that infrastructure funding is a waste.
Unfortunately, infrastructure has been swept up in the increasingly polarized and bitter American “culture wars.” Since the 1990s, there has been a growing cultural divide between left and right, with one side favoring individualism, free markets, devolution, and uni-culturalism, and the other side favoring multicultural communitarianism, government intervention, and a strong federal role. While issues like abortion, guns, and immigration have been front and center in the culture wars, federal infrastructure policy unfortunately has been swept up in them, too.
As recently as the early 2000s, there was general consensus over the issue, as reflected in the strong bipartisan support for reauthorizations of federal surface transportation legislation. The big differences were mostly sectional (with “donor” states fighting “recipient” states for a bigger share of funding) or interest group-based (trucking vs. transit vs. auto users). But those halcyon days are gone as infrastructure policy generally and transportation policy specifically have been enjoined to the culture wars. Long-time infrastructure policy supporters and mavens find themselves befuddled and frustrated, asking themselves, “What happened?” How did this “inside baseball,” technocratic policy issue long characterized by bipartisan consensus—lubricated by logrolling and earmarks—get so sidetracked, they wonder.
The answer is that the partisans on each side of the debate have gotten much more partisan and ideologically strident, with their differences now much wider than their agreements.
One side—which can be called the congestion caucus—claims to be full-throated infrastructure supporters, but only for the “right” kind of infrastructure. For these liberal advocates, the goal is not mobility or even infrastructure per se, it’s social engineering: getting people out of their soulless, single-family suburban homes into vibrant, multi-ethnic communities full of apartment buildings; having them abandon their environment-destroying SUVs in favor of environmentally sustainable light rail, biking or walking; and supporting the urban disadvantaged instead of a privileged suburban class. For them, reducing congestion by building more roads to reduce massive and increasing traffic congestion is exactly the wrong thing to do, for it means more single-family homes, more SUVs, and more suburbanization. To the extent they support spending any more money on roads, it’s only to repair existing ones, ideally in cities—not, God forbid, to build new ones in suburbs. And for that reason they oppose increased infrastructure funding, including from tolling (which they see as enabling “Lexus Lanes” for the rich) or from raising the gas tax. As one Obama political appointee said to me when I asked why the Obama administration was not supporting a gas tax increase, too much of the highway trust fund (which is funded largely by the gas tax) goes to new roads.
While the left always has had its own priorities for surface transportation infrastructure, it used to be about much more traditional liberal concerns—good jobs for blue collar construction workers and more money for all modes of transportation, as long as transit got a reasonable share. Both, to be sure, are reasonable concerns and priorities. But now that is gone. For the left, transportation policy is one more tool for social engineering—Washington mandating that Peoria build sidewalks and bike paths—now with the added rationale of having to save the planet from global warming. (Of course, the only way to support greenhouse gas reduction through transportation policy is to shift to electric cars, not vainly hope to reduce vehicle miles traveled.)
The other side—those we can call the freedom caucus (not referring specifically to the House Republican Freedom Caucus)—also claim to support infrastructure, as long as it’s only for roads (not transit); as long as Congress doesn’t increase the gas tax to support it; and as long as the federal government’s role is smaller. In their view, federal infrastructure programs are overly politicized, bureaucratized and wasteful. And unlike Ronald Reagan, who rightly saw the gas tax as a user fee, they see it as just one more tax, deserving to be cut in the name of Grover Norquist-like purity.
So when traditional infrastructure supporters wonder why there is so little support from voters or elected officials for increased funding, the answer should not a surprise. When we’ve had a decade in which both sides of aisle demonize federal infrastructure spending as wasteful, bad, and ineffective, no wonder people are doubtful. For at least a decade, the congestion caucus has hammered home the message at every turn: Federal support for expanding roads and highways not only doesn’t reduce congestion, it actually makes it worse. They rely on a fallacious notion that induced demand (the process whereby increased supply of lane miles increases the traffic on the lanes) is greater than one. In other words, if you add capacity for 1,000 more cars an hour, more than 1,000 cars an hour will be added, and you will have more, not less congestion. If that’s what increased federal funding gets, then why spend more? The disturbing fact is that this is a nonsensical notion, rebutted by not only by logic but by study after study, and yet it has been widely accepted, including in the media. The fact is that increased lane miles do help reduce congestion.
From the freedom caucus we hear a similar narrative about wasteful federal infrastructure spending. How many more times do we have to hear about former Senator Ted Stephen’s “bridge to nowhere?” Clearly this was expensive “earmarked” project that defied any reasonable cost-benefit calculus. But what the freedom caucus never mentions is that, even at their peak, earmarks were a very small share of federal transportation funding, and moreover, the majority of earmarks funded very good projects. But the freedom caucus’s goal is not to better manage federal funding to reduce wasteful projects—if that were the case, they would support a national infrastructure bank. Instead, it is to radically shrink the federal role in transportation, devolving authority to the states. But there should be no doubt what radical devolution would lead to: significantly reduced funding for infrastructure in America.
So if we have any hope of shifting infrastructure policy away from the culture wars and back toward pragmatism, it will be incumbent on true infrastructure supporters to call out both sides’ arguments—the social engineering, “smart growth” left and the “freedom caucus,” devolutionary right—as flawed and damaging to the U.S. national interest. Only then will a greater share of Americans and policy makers get back to understanding why increased federal support for infrastructure is so critical to America’s future.