Infrastructure Week: #TimeToThink

by Mariia Zimmerman


It’s Infrastructure Week in America -- the annual tradition where media outlets run stories about the desperate need for investment in America’s infrastructure. Congressional briefings and hearings will once again be held. Industry leaders from road building, concrete and asphalt, trucking, airports, and transit will step forward and shake fists to opine the failing grades of America’s infrastructure and the need for investment. I am sure we’ll see pictures of the burning bridge in Atlanta. We may also hear from the US Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street tycoons about how important private investments are to meet infrastructure investment needs. And, no doubt US Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will remark on how environmental regulations are the real culprit in America’s transportation funding woes.

Let me say that yes, I agree, WE NEED MORE INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT in America across all types of infrastructure types – water, transportation, schools and hospitals, housing, broadband and energy, and across all scales – local investments, state investments, interstate investments. I have been part of this chorus for almost two decades now. And yet, this year I find it hard to feel excitement over “Infrastructure Week” aka #TimeToBuild. Why?

Sun Valley, in Denver CO, has a vision to become an innovation eco-district while preserving housing affordability and creating greater energy efficiency. Comprehensive infrastructure investment from public and private sources are key to its success. Yet, Congress is failing these kinds of 21st C. Infrastructure investments.

Sun Valley, in Denver CO, has a vision to become an innovation eco-district while preserving housing affordability and creating greater energy efficiency. Comprehensive infrastructure investment from public and private sources are key to its success. Yet, Congress is failing these kinds of 21st C. Infrastructure investments.

Albert Einstein is credited as saying the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. This sentiment is certainly true when it comes to infrastructure.  Over the last five years of “Infrastructure Week” and, really, ever since George Bush fatefully signed legislation in 1991 to raise the federal gas tax, a myriad of interest groups along with local and state governments have been calling out the need to invest in America’s foundational built structures.

Proponents have sharpened their messages, enlisted new partners from the business community, social equity, bipartisan elected officials, and others seen as more “legitimate” or compelling voices. We have had bridges fall and burn, pipes explode, sink holes eat parts of streets and nuclear plants, cities without drinkable water, and trains derail. We have added over 43.5 million people just since 2017, and by 2040 America is projected to have a population of 373,766,653. Every day, roughly 10,000 baby boomers retire and in coming years many will require specialized transportation to remain mobile and independent.

Yet despite all this, our nation fails to sufficiently fund infrastructure. Partisan rhetoric at the federal and state levels has increased. The result is that almost everyone agrees there is a problem but no one wants to pay for it. Since much of infrastructure is provided as a public good, some see it as emblematic of “big government” despite a heavy dose of private sector involvement even when a road is completely government funded.

What’s worse, when transportation funding is debated, many still seem to think that highways are the only legitimate form of travel even though a significant amount of freight moves by rail and air. Transit is vital not only to bustling metropolitan areas where roads are heavily congested and land costs are way too high to build new roads, but also to rural towns and small cities where older Americans need mobility options if they are unable to drive. Other forms of transportation also fill in critical parts of a system, from walking and bicycling, to transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

Over the last 20 years as I have been a part of the transportation debate, we seem to have fallen further behind in providing needed resources, especially at the federal level. We’ve seen the growth of groups arguing falsely that our problem isn’t a fiscal one, but a regulatory one. They like to claim that if we just funded roads everything would be fine. Or that the private sector could do it better and cheaper. Or my favorite, that environmental regulations are to blame despite repeated studies showing this is simply not true.  Researchers at the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, In the Public Interest and the Roosevelt Institute (among others) have done some great work to debunk these myths but in today’s political climate myth is much more impactful than reality. Rather than seeing them for what they are --- a reaction to Congressional failure to fund infrastructure to support America’s economy, cities and people --- these false claims have become an excuse for further inaction.

At this rate, it may be that America’s once great public infrastructure investment built over generations and connecting cities large and small is sold off one piece at a time to private investors who now control and price it. For those projects that yield significant profits, investments will be made. For other parts of the system where that is not the case, too bad. This has been our approach to things like broadband recently (how is that working for you rural America?) and roads and electricity at the turn of the 20th century before New Deal investments and Eisenhower’s interstate was built. For transit, this was the legacy essentially until the 1990s leading to the fact that while most metropolitan areas have an interstate system in place, few have a complete transit system in place.  Maintaining our existing infrastructure is a challenge beyond the ability of many communities to face, especially when we look beyond just transportation.

While Congress is not sufficiently funding infrastructure, local voters are consistently stepping forward. They recognize that a small increase in sales or property tax, or other form of municipal finance, yields big dividends for the entire region and state. The Center for Transportation Excellence has been tracking this trend. In 2016, communities in 25 states, in cities large and small, voted on measures that collectively would provide over $200 billion for transit. Over 75 percent of these measures passed, which isn’t to diminish the need for federal investment. Federal transit funds cannot generally be used for operating costs and the demand for new transit lines far exceeds available federal funding. In response measures such as those in Los Angeles, Seattle and Atlanta were approved by voters to help make projects in these cities more competitive for receiving limited federal funding, accelerate transit construction, and meet local operating and maintenance needs.

Perhaps my biggest frustration with this year’s Infrastructure Week though, is the troubling trend showing itself in state legislatures. State funding for transportation has been uneven. A few have stepped forward to meet the need, but many are reacting to the inadequacy of funding to make short sighted and mean-spirited policy decisions. A number of states, like my home state of Minnesota have resisted infrastructure investments (especially in transit) for metropolitan areas.  For years, states have told urban communities to solve their own problem. Many have through approving local funding measures. Now, the Minnesota state legislature is refusing to allow communities to even do this. Proposed cuts and policy amendments to the state’s transportation omnibus spending bill would decimate transit service to low-income, senior citizen, and mobility impaired riders. It would also deal a serious blow to transit commuters who rely on light rail and bus service to reach thousands of jobs across the region.

“The proposed cuts to transit included in the House proposal would devastate the Twin Cities metro region,” said Metropolitan Council Chair Duininck. “As we continue to review possible scenarios, it is alarming the magnitude of cuts that would be required. People across the region would be forced to pay more for a service that will provide far less in return. For some commuters, their route to and from work could disappear. In particular, transit riders in the suburbs will feel the greatest impact – these reductions in service could mean the loss of the only public transit they have access to. Now is the time for the Twin Cites metro region to be expanding transit options, not slashing them.”

Groups are rallying in Minnesota this week to save transit.

Groups are rallying in Minnesota this week to save transit.

This is cutting your nose off to spite yourself. The business community has unanimously stepped forward to say it will hurt the state’s economy. It will also hurt the transportation system as people are left with fewer options and more congestion. It’s not cost-efficient. In short, it is bad government. While national groups sing the #TimeToBuild chorus this week,  a cross-sector coalition of faith-based, civic and business leaders will rally in Minnesota on May 16th simply for #NoCuts and #NoHikes.

Infrastructure is key to the national economy and to the economic opportunity that every American faces. Safe water. Affordable energy. Mobility and accessibility. We have artificially made infrastructure investment a zero-sum game by letting the “no tax” voices win.  Infrastructure is the ultimate public good. Public investment in all forms of infrastructure costs the individual user less than paying for it through user feeds, or perhaps not even getting the service if it’s too cost prohibitive for the private sector. Yes, it’s time to build, but even more importantly, it’s time to think.