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Bridging the Infrastructure Divides

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.

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  • 4Gbill

    This analysis is correct and exposes the embarrassing, false, idealistic ideologies driving the current dysfunctional federal government. Digging deeper into the problem of a lack of economic growth driven by innovation and a lack of competitiveness reveals several unrecognized gaps and false assumptions that block growth. First is the false and dangerous assumption that the population should remain centered in cities surrounded by suburbs rather than move (with policy) to be widely distributed in new small towns enabled by high speed, low cost communication of information and capability for more efficient and lower cost distributed autonomous production of goods like energy and food by individuals and small companies. Second is the gap in understanding (and policy) that doesn’t recognize economic growth is now more driven by investments in intangible capital rather than tangible capital including physical infrastructure. Economics and financial accounting don’t measure more than 10% of intangible capital such as R&D. And the rules of the old economy overly link ROI and compensation to tangible rather than intangible capital.

  • As one of the researchers whose work supports some of the “smart growth” policy reforms, I must respectfully disagree with your assessment. There is good objective analysis (mine being a very small portion) indicating that traditional transportation policies and planning practices are biased in various ways that result in economically-excessive sprawl and automobile-dependency, and that smart growth policy reforms, such as more comprehensive and multi-modal planning, least-cost investment policies, reduced and more flexible parking requirements, and more efficient road and parking pricing, are justified on basic economic principles (consumer sovereignty, economic efficiency, and responsiveness to changing consumer preferences).

    Mainstream transportation professional organizations, such as the Institute of Transportation Engineers, are embracing these reforms because they are cost-efficient and address a wide range of problems. Your emphasis on vehicle
    mobility as the primary indicator of transport system performance, and traffic
    congestion as the primary transportation problem, reflect the old planning
    paradigm; the new paradigm is more multi-modal and comprehensive; it recognizes the important roles that walking, cycling and public transit play in an
    efficient and equitable transport system, recognizes that accessibility rather
    than mobility is the ultimate goal of transport planning (so more compact,
    mixed and connected development is as important as increasing vehicle mobility
    in improving transportation performance), and recognizes a variety of planning
    objectives that are generally overlooked and undervalued in conventional planning.

    For example, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey asked
    respondents to rank various transport problems; the results indicate that to
    system users, the highest priority, by far, is inaffordability, a goal that
    conventional planning and the solutions it implements, such as increased road
    and parking supply, do almost nothing to address.

    Much of the research used to justify roadway expansions is technically inaccurate. For example, the TTI Urban Mobility Scorecard is biased in many ways that exaggerate their congestion costs (by my estimate, a third of their “cost” consists of motorists reducing their speed to legal limits, and they use a higher value of travel time than what the USDOT recommends), and conventional trip generation values are about twice as high as justified for compact, infill development.

    Current demographic and economic trends (vehicle travel saturation, aging population, improving travel options, changing consumer preferences, increasing health and environmental concerns) are causing automobile travel to peak and demand for other modes to increase. Shifting resources from highway expansion to improving alternative modes, smart growth development policies and other transportation demand management strategies responds to these changing demands; I think you are very wrong to call them “social engineering.”

    Smart growth reforms are rational, not ideological, and it is unfortunate that you frame them so. They are no more “anti-car” than a healthy diet is “anti-food,” they create a more efficient and diverse transportation system which benefits everybody, including motorists. Political conservatives have every reason to support these reforms because they help achieve their stated economic and social objectives: increased productivity, improved opportunity for economically disadvantaged people, and they are usually the most cost-effective solution to specific problems such as traffic and parking congestion, inaffordability, accidents, and pollution

    For information see:

    CTOD and CNT (2006), The Affordability Index: A New Tool for Measuring the True Affordability of a Housing Choice, Center for Transit-Oriented Development and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Brookings Institute (

    James M. Daisa and Terry Parker (2010), “Trip Generation Rates for Urban Infill Uses In California,” ITE Journal (, Vol. 79, No. 6, June 2010, pp.

    Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi (2014), Measuring Urban Sprawl and Validating Sprawl Measures, Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah for the National Cancer Institute, the Brookings Institution and Smart Growth America; at

    Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti (2015), Why Do Cities Matter? Local Growth and Aggregate Growth, National Bureau of Economic Research (; at Also see, “Home Economics: Sky-High House Prices In The Most Desirable Cities Are Holding Back Growth And Jobs,” The Economist, 4 October 2014; at

    ITE Smart Growth Task Force (2010), “Smart Growth Transportation Guidelines, Recommended Practice,” Institute of Transportation Engineers (;

    J. Richard Kuzmyak (2012), “Land Use and Traffic Congestion,” Report 618, Arizona Department of Transportation (; at

    Todd Litman (2013), “Toward More Comprehensive and Multi-modal Transport Evaluation,” JOURNEYS (, September 2013, pp. 50-58; at

    Todd Litman (2013), “The New Transportation Planning Paradigm,” ITE Journal (, Vol. 83, June, pp. 20-28; at

    “How Not to Measure Traffic Congestion” (

    Adam Millard-Ball (2015), “Phantom Trips: Overestimating the Traffic Impacts of New Development,” Journal of Transportation and Land Use;
    at; summarized in, ACCESS 45, pp. 3-8 (

  • antiplanner

    I come to this from the opposite side of my friend, Todd Litman. I take exception to calling the roads caucus the freedom caucus. I work with people both in what you might call the roads caucus and in the freedom caucus and there is a clear difference. The roads caucus wants more money for roads no matter what the source. The freedom caucus wants less subsidies for all forms of transportation and wants the federal government out of the transportation business. It is unfair to imply that freedom-type groups want more subsidies for roads.

    As for Litman’s comments, his claims that “traditional” policies lead to sprawl and automobile-dependency, I answer, “so what?” Sprawl, or low-density residential development, is preferred by the majority of people in developed nations worldwide. Auto-liberation (as I prefer to call it) generates huge economic benefits. The environmental costs of these things are either negligible or best addressed by means other than trying to manipulate people’s transportation and housing choices.

    Fund all transport out of user fees and let people’s transportation (and land-use) choices fall where they may.

  • robatkinsonitif

    Todd, thanks for the feedback. We will have to agree to disagree on some of
    this, but my core point is not that transit and bikes and smart growth are
    bad. I actually ride my bike to work everyday. It’s that the
    opposition to roads and road expansion is what kills the ability to get
    bipartisan compromise, that would include more money. I agree with you that sprawl is subsidized and that developers should pay the full cost of
    sprawl. But there are massive opportunities to widen roads and build new ones in most
    metros, DC being included, that would make material improvements in peoples
    lives. I would also be more than happy to let governors and MPOs have all the flexibility in the world to invest in whatever they want, as long
    as they are held accountable. If they think they can spend $100 million on
    transit and do a better job on increasing mobility and reducing road congestion, great. But they would have to show
    results compared to another city/state that expended their beltways, etc.