Report: Get Out of the Highway-Obsessed Eisenhower Era

Building America's Future's words, not ours! Source: BAF, via USDOT.

Building America’s Future, led by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has added their voice to the chorus calling for greater investment in U.S. infrastructure, lest the country fall behind its global competitors. In a new report, Falling Apart and Falling Behind, BAF recommends more focus on mass transit, a switch away from formula funding without performance requirements, and more emphasis on metropolitan areas.

A couple weeks ago, we took some heat from some of you, dear readers, about our coverage of a somewhat similar report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Indeed, that report called for more infrastructure spending, but without specific recommendations on how to build a bettertransportation system. Charles Marohn at Strong Towns wrote a scathing critique of the report, questioning the urgent need to “spend trillions to save seconds” of commute time – especially the assertion that the U.S. should spend $2.2 trillion in order to save $1.0 trillion. Marohn went on to say:

At Strong Towns, we want our infrastructure maintained. In fact, it’s the common denominator of a Strong Town. But the reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Well put. And we’re glad to see that today’s contribution to the infrastructure debate goes deeper than the ASCE report in recommending concrete ways to build smarter, not just more.

Building America’s Future urges more spending, but says that to do it right, funding priorities should adhere to national strategies. And they’re not shy about spelling out what those are: more economic growth and mobility, less congestion and pollution. “Largely run on gasoline, our transportation system is environmentally, politically, and economically unsustainable,” they write.

Source: BAF via World Economic Forum.

To achieve those goals, BAF urges the federal government to redirect spending toward the 100 metropolitan areas that generate 75 percent of U.S. GDP, especially investing in their mass transit systems. BAF wants to “re-focus highway investment on projects of national economic significance,” including a fix-it-first priority that Rendell says should be built into law. BAF would invest in high-speed rail, but they join Republicans in criticizing the Obama approach of spreading the dollars too thinly around the country. Building America’s Future would focus on three key corridors: Boston to Washington, L.A. to San Francisco, and a hub-and-spoke system around Chicago.

As for how to pay for it, they unabashedly call for raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, pointing out that U.S. consumers spend way too little on gasoline, compared with other developed countries, with far too low of a gas tax, which can’t even begin to pay for the negative externalities of fossil fuels. “As high as gas prices in the U.S. seem today, they do not even fully account for the true cost of driving in terms of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” the report says. “In the interest of our own environmental sustainability and national security, we should consider the ways in which other countries’ taxes discourage overreliance on gasoline.”

BAF also seeks a shift toward longer-term solutions like a VMT fee, congestion pricing, and increased tolling, as well as establishing a national infrastructure bank, making TIGER permanent and expanding TIFIA. They emphasize the need to foster, not suppress, local innovation in the way that those programs do. Their zeal for public-private partnerships appears more tempered than some, and they call for an examination of best practices for PPPs – a recent focus among some constituencies that fear that PPPs can privatize profits while socializing risk.

All of these moves would finally yank our transportation system out of the Eisenhower age, Building America’s Future asserts. While some road-gang types wouldn’t mind staying in the Eisenhower age forever, more and more unlikely allies are popping up all over, realizing that building roads can’t cure congestion.

The report focuses on the United States’ freefall in global rankings of infrastructure, with the World Economic Forum rating us first in the world for the competitiveness of our infrastructure in 2005 and 15th today. And in his remarks to reporters, Rendell gave a good amount of airtime to the need to move metallurgical coal to ports as fast as Australia does. But the real strength of the BAF report is that it goes beyond a mere cry for more spending, as the ASCE report did. It says that without spending that money strategically, to reduce pollution, increase connectivity, maintain a state of good repair, and strengthen metropolitan areas, more spending isn’t enough.