Infrastructure Dreams and Living Nightmares

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent weeks, there’s been a great deal of media attention on a train that derailed in Ohio. The derailment highlights a contradiction that has haunted American politics. On one hand, there is an increasingly vocal set of progressives and libertarians who have dreams of revitalizing American cities with big infrastructure projects. They want high-speed rail, fifteen minute cities, lots of cycling, walkable streets, and tall apartment buildings. These movements often rally around acronyms – YIMBY, NUMTOT, and the like. On the other hand, there is the infrastructure that actually exists in the United States. It’s crumbling, and it’s expensive to maintain, let alone replace. Between urbanist dreams and rusty realities there sits President Biden. Biden was faced with a pivotal decision. He could shore up the existing infrastructure, fighting back against the rust. He could commit America to a new paradigm, replacing what’s decaying with new ideas. He could not do both. He chose to do neither.

This is not to say that Biden did not spend money on infrastructure. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorized $550 billion in new spending on repairing the old stuff, and the Inflation Reduction Act added $391 billion for green energy. These sums are to be spent over the next decade, and so will add, on average, $55 billion per year for the old stuff and $39.1 billion per year on the new stuff. Most of this money is yet to be spent.

The trouble is that the scale of the problem is much larger than this. In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers argued that we had an infrastructure funding gap of $2.59 trillion over the next decade, or $259 billion per year. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act only covers about 21% of that. Even if all the green energy money in the Inflation Reduction Act were allocated to traditional infrastructure, the combined infrastructure spending would only amount to 36% of the funding gap. Biden split his spending between fixing and renewing, and even the combined spending fell far short of what was needed to accomplish either goal.

These basic facts about the situation receive no attention in the media. Biden’s supporters pretend this money is enough, when it is not. Biden’s critics on the right go on and on about the state of the railways, but when Donald Trump was president the GOP refused to commit federal funds to fixing infrastructure. Instead, they entertained a fantasy that they could somehow incentivize the private sector to build all of this stuff. Their proposal died on the floor, never making it to the president’s desk.

In the meantime, urbanists write these silly pieces about how great European and Japanese cities are, ignoring certain fundamental facts. Since the widespread adoption of air conditioning in the 1960s, enormous numbers of Americans have moved to metropolitan areas in the South and in the West. As these cities expanded, they built tons and tons of post-war infrastructure. If you go to Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, or Atlanta, you will see piles of sprawling strip malls and highways. These cities were designed with cars in mind. The population is spread out and the destinations people visit are scattered. The cities have committed heavily to highways, but the population has grown so much that there are severe, endemic traffic problems.

If, in an effort to relieve housing costs, you build a bunch of high-density apartment buildings, the traffic problems get even worse. If you try to transition away from cars, you have to deal with the existing distribution of people and destinations. Public transit systems have to cover more terrain, and they have to have a larger number of stations, and this makes them more expensive to install. So, what will tend to happen is that public transit will be introduced, but it will be done on the cheap. There will only be a handful of stations to start, and city officials will hope that if the service is popular there will be public support to expand it, and then there will be public support to build the high-density housing it facilitates.

Instead, the money spent on public transit is usually not enough to create a compelling transit system. The transit system does however eat into the funds available for maintaining the roads. The roads deteriorate, and there is no money to add road capacity, and so as more people pile into these cities the motorists and the urbanists are pitted against each other. The cities do not maintain their infrastructure, and they do not provide a new alternative – they try to do both, and they end up doing neither.

If the voters try voting in pro-motorist politicians, those politicians tend to support tax cuts, and therefore they don’t put up the money needed to maintain the roads, either. They beg the private sector to invest in the roads, offering to let companies set up toll systems. The tolls don’t raise enough money to make privatizing the roads reliably profitable, and they make the road network less accessible to the poor, who are then pushed into using underfunded, substandard forms of public transport.

In this way, this play repeats itself on both the local and national level. The government can’t fix the infrastructure, and it can’t replace it. There’s a state capacity problem. But nobody wants to admit or acknowledge this. So instead, three fairy stories are told:

  1. The right claims that it would fix the infrastructure if it won elections, but in fact the right will cut taxes and then beg the private sector for help it cannot and will not provide.
  2. The center claims that it is spending money to fix the infrastructure, but its expenditures are an order of magnitude out of alignment with the scale of the problem. In point of fact the center manages decline under the guise of “pragmatism.”
  3. The progressives and libertarians fantasize about helicopter money magically transfiguring American cities into Tokyo and Amsterdam.

Driven up by COVID lockdowns and the war in Ukraine, the inflation rate is now too high for the United States to use helicopter money to fix or replace crumbling infrastructure. The window for that kind of investment was open for more than a decade after the crisis of 2008. But petty squabbling prevented the American state from exploiting this window while it was open. Eventually, the pandemic led the government to spend the money that could have been spent on Medicare-For-All, the education system, and infrastructure on allowing Americans to stay home from work for a few months.

The degree to which our possibilities have contracted is still not widely understood or acknowledged. The opportunity to use the post-2008 period to make major, positive changes to the structure of American society has been wasted. Our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren, will be tangibly worse than they would have been had we made better decisions at earlier stages.

The roads no longer take us anywhere – now they are the prison in which we will while away the hours, exhausting what we have trying and failing to maintain the cage we have built for ourselves.